I am proud of my husband for taking risks for our country. I believe our service-members exhibit sacrifice, dedication and compassion, which are traits respectable in all people. But, unfortunately, parts of our military are still organized around gender, with core virtues based on harmful ideals of masculinity.
Photo Credit: Flickr user USMC
The institution reinforces long-held stereotypes about men, like that they must be stoic, hesitant to speak about or show emotions, and physically and mentally strong. At times, aggressiveness is rewarded, while those who don’t meet these high standards of macho-ness are chastised.
While this allegiance to harmful gender norms isn’t enforced on every command, the consequences when they are enforced can’t be ignored. Sexual assault is still rampant, there is still a ban on transgender military troops, and homophobia and sexism are still enforced even at my own husband’s command.
There has been progress–like the repeal of the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gay and lesbian service members, and a greater push for and acceptance of women in the military–but as military spouses, there are a few things we can do in our own relationships to make a difference:
Let your spouse know when you’re worried about them. From the minute our service members begin their training, they are taught that they need to be powerful and assertive to succeed, and sometimes that desire for control comes to fruition in the form of sexual violence.
For victims of this heinous crime, the principal of resilience embedded in the military and masculinity in the military sends another harmful message: don’t say a word about it, or expect to be ridiculed. According to the Pentagon, thirty-eight military men are sexually assaulted every day, yet reporting rates are overwhelmingly low. In GQ’s article, “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped,” the stories of twenty-three men who are survivors highlight many different reasons for not coming forward, like a lack of services, a fears of retaliation, or a concern that their masculinity will be questioned.
As spouses, it’s important that we let our military members know that it is okay to seek help after an assault, and that there is support for them whether it’s through the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or an outside source, such as a rape crisis center. If you notice that your spouse is withdrawn or not being themselves, simply telling them “I’m worried about you” can open many doors. Beyond that, it’s up to us to dismantle the myths that only women are victims, or that being a victim means being weak or less of a man. If we come together, we can get more service members the services and support they so desperately need.
Encourage your spouse to be who they are. Masculinity is based on the idea of anti-femininity. We teach men stereotypes about women, like that they’re over-emotional, submissive, and physically weak, and then we tell men to be the complete opposite. The military takes it a step further by training service members to bear pain and make extreme sacrifices, but then frowns upon a display of emotions. While under certain circumstances, like combat, a display of emotions would not be appropriate, when back at home, this learned avoidance of feelings can hurt an individual’s ability to cope from mental disorders like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The reality is that masculinity and maleness are not the same thing. Maleness is biological, while we’ve constructed the idea of masculinity. Being sensitive and emotional does not make someone less male, just like being strong and dominant doesn’t make someone less female. When we don’t allow men to have certain qualities, we keep them from being themselves, and as a result, drive them to repress feelings, desires, and needs.
We have a special gift as spouses, and that’s to encourage our partners to be whoever they want to be, regardless of whether their characteristics or actions might be construed as feminine. We also can act as a safe place for our partners to go if they do need to cry or show emotions they may be discouraged from having at work. While these are important aspects of every healthy relationship, they can be especially helpful in military families.
Be careful with your language. Words like “sissy,” the “b” word, and other derogatory terms get thrown around a lot in both in and out of the military, and the message we send when we use this language is that the worst thing to be in the world is a woman or gay. While as spouses, we can’t control what gets said in our partners’ workplaces, we can ensure that the same language isn’t being used at home.
It’s easy to play off these words by claiming they’re harmless or just jokes, but when we use them enough, we start to enable a culture where violent expressions of masculinity are the norm. And while it might not always be comfortable calling out others who use this type of language, doing so is one of the simplest actions we can take in advocating for a safer world for people of all gender identities.
While I take pride in being part of this community, and have seen so many service members do incredible things to address sexism, there is more progress to be made. Our military is highly regarded and can lead as an example in gender equality, so it’s time we take it a step further to guarantee that people of all genders feel comfortable in their identities and free of the threat of harm.
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