“It’s rarely discussed in the media and within our society that sexual assault in the military happens to 20 percent of women, and even more experience daily sexual and emotional harassment. I know. I was one of them.”
I have a history of being truthful with The Free Weekly readers, and I didn’t want that to change with this column. Just as importantly, I wanted to keep the conversation about reproductive rights and gender equality going after Friday night’s inspirational event — More Than A Statistic — that took place at Nightbird Books.
The event was sponsored by the University of Arkansas group “Students for Gender Equality,” and was the first time I had seen women and men brave enough to sit in an everyday downtown setting and share with an attentive audience their stories of discrimination against their choice of sexual activity, bad women jokes and even rape, abortion and incest. In a society where saying these words in a serious manner (we’ve all heard jokes or common phrases that refer to these topics) is taboo, this event stood out amongst the rest.
To keep the conversation going — and to show that in our society we must stop being afraid to speak out about these subjects, we must stop victim blaming and support each other as we would want to be supported had the same things happened to us— I’ve decided to share my personal story of gender inequality that I also shared last Friday. If you feel inspired by my story like I did from the stories of others, keep your own conversation going, speak out if you hear a bad joke, talk to someone who needs support, and/or contact the Students for Gender Equality at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how you can get involved or just learn more.
My last day of military duty, I got a warm farewell from my fellow soldiers and felt proud that I had successfully served out my enlistment, leaving with a group of friends. But while driving off base, I began to cry. They were tears of sadness for leaving something I had been a part of for seven years, and knowing I would never see most of the friends I had made again. But they were also tears of regret, and frustration for my time as a soldier, most of which I spent feeling insecure, disrespected and inferior.
On the first day of technical training a man I sat next to in class pulled out his phone, asked me if I wanted to see a picture, and showed me a picture of his penis. That same man would later pinch my butt as I walked up the stairs and follow me into the bathroom late one night and push me up against the sink from behind. Later during my service, I experienced superiors much older and experienced than myself taking advantage of my need to fit in with my fellow co-workers by taking me to strip clubs and buying me drinks and lap dances when I was under-age and not strong enough to say I was uncomfortable.
I listened to many conversations where men soldiers would talk about women soldiers as if they were sex objects and not fellow comrades, all while hearing the mantra of the military being an institution of camaraderie and fighting with, and along side, one another. There were many times when men would take me on jobs, not because they thought I was capable, but because they wanted to get me alone and compliment my eyes and body. When I was in Iraq, a man grabbed my butt while sitting next to me on a dark bus headed to the middle of the desert. I fought with superiors to take down signs in the main offices that read “If you can’t stop bitching, just go home,” meant to make fun of fellow female soldiers for standing up for themselves in the face of adversity. And more times than I’d like to admit I had male soldiers tell me to my face that women just aren’t cut out for the military, and they believed shouldn’t be allowed to join. While in the desert, my biggest fear was not terrorists, but my fellow soldier as rapes were a common occurrence.
All of this is taking place while each year we’re made to attend diversity training, sexual assault classes and a host of other sessions meant to make us feel like a team who supports and respects one another. And worst of all, I never felt brave enough to speak out, because it’s clear in the military that you keep your mouth shut or you are forever ostracized and will be alone and miserable.
It’s rarely discussed in the media and within our society that sexual assault in the military happens to 20 percent of women, and even more experience daily sexual and emotional harassment.
Leaving that day wasn’t the only day I cried in the military. I cried alone in my dorm room after my nine male classmates incessantly teased me during tech school, and after I went out drinking with “friends” and got grabbed inappropriately when I got too drunk to correctly respond.
When I joined the military in 2004 at the age of 17, I wanted to challenge myself before I started out in my “adult” life, and I wanted to get money to attend college. What I found was an institution filled with gender inequality where speaking out against wrong-doing never felt like an option.
Looking to the future, the military is working on breaking the silence of victims through reporting reforms, and movies like “The Invisible War” are bringing attention to the issue.
But the only way we will fix these issues for good is if our society and people like you start to listen, understand and respect the fact that women are individuals and have strengths and weaknesses, just like men. And in the military, just like men, they have so many things to offer, if they’re only given the chance to positively grow as a person and a soldier.