Women in Combat, and what the debate reveals about our society

History was made on January 24th when Defense Secretary Leon Penetta formally lifted the ban on women serving in combat in the military. When I first heard this news I was very pleased, this seems to me to be a natural (but overdue) step in the continued struggle to gain women greater equality in our society. This is a welcome step forward. Especially when you consider the fact that many women are already serving in combat positions. According to the New York Times more than 800 women have been wounded, and more than 130 have died in combat. The lift of the ban insures that women in these positions can have an official classification, and be entitled to all of the benefits and prestige that comes with that.

There was of course a negative backlash to this decision. There are still people who argue against this decision, saying that allowing women in combat will have a negative effect on the military. I won’t say that I’m surprised by the backlash, but it does disappoint me. It also highlights some of the problems that we still face as a nation in regard to how women are viewed and treated in this country. The problem I have with those who are opposed to allowing women in combat, is that their argument regarding this subject makes a lot of assumptions about men and women that are heavily sexist, stereotyped, and unfair. Such as:

Women should not be allowed in combat because they are not as physically fit as men.

This argument is always made first because it actually does have some biological truth. Physically, most men are larger and stronger than most women. I won’t try to argue against this basic biological truth, but I will argue against the assumption that because this is true, it must also be true that all women are unsuitable for combat.

The problem with this argument is that makes really broad assumptions about women who join the military. Yes, in a situation where an average man is placed alongside an average woman, the average man will probably physically outperform the woman. The thing is though, the military is not made up of average men and women. Exceptional, hard working, driven people of both genders join the military. If a woman chooses this path, she has the right to try to prove herself, both physically and mentally for the task at hand. Many women already have.

Also, the male branch of the military is not made up exclusively of buff, 6’5, robust men. Men are not turned away because they are only 5’9 as opposed to 6’2. Men are given the opportunity to prove themselves, even if there are other taller, bigger men enlisting along with them. So why should women be universally turned away from service when men are not? Why are men given choices and opportunities, but women are not?

Combat is gross. Sometimes there is no privacy, and that would be awkward and embarrassing for women.

This argument was recently voiced by Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin on CNN where he stated that,

“The slots that may be opened are in our infantry and Special Forces units. The purpose of such units is to directly and physically engage enemy forces. These units can often be deployed in prolonged operations that can last for months. The physical toll is constant and wearing. During operations of this kind there is typically no access to a base of operations or facilities. Consequently, living conditions can be abysmal and base.”

I won’t deny that having to pee in the woods would be unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t do it if I had to. This argument makes the assumption that women are too delicate to be exposed to the gross physical realities of warfare. This notion is heavily stereotyped and insulting. If we lived in a world where all women were fragile, and needed to be sheltered then this argument would have some validity. But we don’t live in that world. Women are forced to face harsh realities every single day, in every country of the world. Is war full of horrors? Yes. But why does Boykin make the assumption that women are universally incapable of facing those horrors? This argument assumes that while men are able to adapt to the horror of warfare, women are inherently incapable of doing the same . The stereotype that women cannot handle gritty realities is antiquated, untrue, and sexist. And it needs to go away.

Women can’t be in combat because it would create huge sexual tension, and the sexual assault problem in the military will only get worse.

This argument is probably the one that bothers me the most. It is no secret that sexual assault is a major problem in the U.S military, and arguments against letting women in combat positions, or in the military at all for that matter, usually begin with points like this: “Women should not be allowed in the military because their male counterparts cannot control their sexual urges, and this is why so many women are horribly sexually assaulted within the military.” Boykin does not directly say this, but he alludes to the concept of women in combat causing unbearable sexual tension when he writes,

“Men and women can serve together in the armed forces productively, but that service needs to be prudently structured in a manner that reflects the differences between the sexes and the power of their attractions.”

In this article he suggests that sexual tension is so strong, so all consuming, that it would endanger lives if women were allowed in combat. Others argue that if women are allowed in combat, the sexual assault problem in the military will get even worse. So the solution is to just keep them out. Period.

I hate this argument, because it puts the burden on women to stop rape from happening to them.  Instead of teaching men in our society that raping women is a depraved and evil act, we are teaching women that they must behave a certain way in order to not get raped. Rather than expecting men to be decent human beings, we are blaming women who are raped because they stepped out of traditional gender roles.

This argument is insulting to both men and women. It first assumes that men cannot control themselves, and that they will sexually assault women if they dress a certain way, talk a certain way, take certain jobs in a male-dominated workforce, etc, etc. Because they just can’t help it.They are so attracted to women that it just happens.

I think of all the men in my life; my friends from church, my work colleagues, my family members, and I think of how insulted they would feel if I assumed that the only reason they don’t sexually assault me is because I’m wearing modest clothing, or acting a certain way, or working in a traditionally female field.  The reason that these men don’t assault me (or any other women) is because they are decent men, who were taught to value and respect women as human beings. Our society needs to stop teaching the idea that acting on sexual urges is uncontrollable, and that we should gender segregate our society accordingly to avoid mishaps, and START teaching the idea that sexual attraction is something that decent human beings of both genders can control when it would be inappropriate to do otherwise.

All of these arguments result from viewing women in a very narrow, stereotyped way. Most importantly, the proponents of these arguments all take the choice away from women themselves. Rather than letting women choose to endure demanding physical tests, they assume that women are universally incapable of withstanding them. Rather than letting women choose to endure harsh  war realities, they assume that women are universally too delicate to handle it. Instead of teaching men in the military that women are to be treated as valued comrades, deserving of respect, they would rather assume that men are slaves to physical attraction.   Instead of letting women prove themselves in the military just like their male counterparts, the opponents of lifting the ban on women in combat would rather assume that all women are too weak, squeamish, and vulnerable to fight.

The backlash to the decision on the 24th reveals the narrow and one-dimensional way that part of our society still views women. While this is troublesome, we can still celebrate the decision itself, which is long overdue. We can only hope that this change will bring more opportunities to women in the military as well as change the consciousness about the roles of women in our country in the years to come.

-Tara