MoD: But the boys need their pin-ups!

// 7 July 2008

A survey of over 2,500 servicewomen has found that sexual harassment and sexist attitudes are rife among the armed forces:

Between 2005 and 2007, servicewomen reported a rise in six out of nine types of inappropriate sexual behaviour, ranging from comments about their sex lives to obscene gestures. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed were sent explicit material such as pornography, according to the previously unpublished survey for the MoD. Other incidents included peepholes being cut in the walls of women’s showers and a servicewoman being told by a senior officer that ‘I should sleep with him because he is a higher rank’.

Another was humiliated at an official function in the officers’ mess, when a card was sent to the top table suggesting she was ‘available for sexual favours’.

In response, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will be launching a joint venture with the MoD to tackle these issues. However, ensuring that women are able to do their job without harassment is apparently “controversial”:

…some senior officers argue privately that operational effectiveness could be jeopardised by imposing civilian attitudes on army life and that traditions such as soldiers decorating their lockers with pornographic pin-ups should be left alone.

Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, said that while the armed forces should meet their duty of care to all troops, they should not apply ‘a degree of political correctness which might be excessive’ to the military.

Note how the issue of serious, institutionalised discrimination is reduced to supposed whining about a couple of nudie posters and the oh-so-detested political correctness. No surprise, really, considering that attitudes within the armed forces simply reflect those of wider society:

One in five servicemen still did not think that telling a junior woman she would get a promotion if she slept with them was harassment; asked why they thought harassment cases happened, 46 per cent of the men said it was because women ‘over-reacted’.

Not dissimilar from the reactions we get when we complain about street harassment.

Of course, working in the armed forces is tough. Really tough. But no one’s asking for women to be exempt from the mental and physical challenges all servicemen have to face, simply that they should not suffer extra difficulty while trying to get on in their careers due to sexist discrimination. These women, like Corporal Sarah Bryant, are prepared to risk their lives to do the job they have chosen. So if they come forward and say there’s a problem here, it must undoubtedly amount to a hell of a lot more than the occasional flash of pin-up titties when the boys open their lockers.

According to the EHRC Chair,

‘The MoD now has a very good system for when things go wrong. Now we need to make sure those things go wrong much less frequently. There has been positive change but they want to do more and we are going to help them achieve that.

…We ask our brave service personnel to put their lives on the line, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion. For soldiers who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, the very least we can do is make sure they are treated fairly and with respect by their own colleagues.’

Nice words, here’s hoping for some action.

Comments From You

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 7 July 2008 at 9:20 pm

Imagine if the genders were switched and it was male service personnel who were being sexually harassed and/or sexually intimidated. There would be a huge outcry of ‘this sexual harassment must stop.’ But when it is male service personnel subjecting female service personnel to sexual harassment and worse, sexual violence then we hear claimns of ‘political correctness gone mad.’

News flash to the military services – women surprisingly are human to and have rights. One of which is the right to be treated with respect and not subjected to sexualised contempt and blatant misogyny.

If it is not acceptable for the military to engage in racist comments etc. then it most certainly is not acceptable for male soldiers of whatever rank to engage in deliberate sexual intimidation and humiliation of female personnel. Liam Fox in claiming that the armed forces must not be subject to ‘excessive political correctness’ in effect is saying it is acceptable for male service personnel to sexually humilate female service personel. Would Fox say the same about racism within the military and if not is it because racism unlike sexual harassment affects males as well as females.

Fox clearly believes in male sexual privilege.

Torygirl // Posted 7 July 2008 at 9:25 pm


My other half is in Afghan at the moment. He’s not directly in harm’s way but I have such mixed feelings about all this.

I have been dutifully sending him a copy of Nuts magazine to share every week (usually with post its on every page which say things like “yeah she obviously hasn’t had kids…”). I hate Nuts. Hate it with a passion, but I know that it’s light entertainment and they’re not in a real life situation, though it is real life, it’s hyper real.

We had an email fight last night because I put the question to him of how he would feel if our daughter (currently age 2) were to behave in that way when she reaches 18.

He trotted out the usual chat that it’s empowering etc because they have power over men. He didn’t directly answer my question and seemed to have missed the point as feminism is not about having power over men, but power over ourselves.

Army life is far removed from civilian society. Soldiers are an odd breed it’s true. I find it a difficult and constant personal struggle against sexist attitudes (“her own fault – lighten up, it’s just a bit of a laugh”) and racist attitudes (“they’re only called ragheads because they wear rags on their heads, if they wore something else on their heads they’d be called something else instead”).

Torygirl // Posted 7 July 2008 at 9:39 pm

Most of my grey hairs are there from stories my other half has told me about some of the things he’s seen on base. It’s quite disgusting, yet he can never answer the question how he would feel if it were our daughter…

Dan // Posted 7 July 2008 at 10:12 pm


Erm, if look through war and military history there has been some prejudice against the enemy or the local popualtion, there have always been nicknames.

If they were white and wore “rags” on their heads they’d still be called ragheads.

Germans – Krauts

France – Frogs

Sand n****r is a common term used by black solders as well.

Gooks and dinks – vietnam and Korea.

There are all meant to be offensive but then again that is the whole point of war, you have to be offensive to the enemy.

Though I don’t speak a langauge of an enemy but they have words for our citizens and soldiers.

But if you let words get you down as a soldier and makes you bring thoughts of racism to mind then you’re in the wrong proffesion.

They shouldn’t be letting bullets get them down, nevermind general terms.

That covers so called racism.

Socialist Cephalopod // Posted 7 July 2008 at 11:04 pm

I completely agree with everyone’s condemnation of harassment and abuse of women in the military or anywhere else.

But the only thing I would add is that what do we expect from the armed services? The military is right at the very sharp end of enforcing patriarchal values. I think that patriarchy as a system originally grew out of militarism, and any military has to brutalise and inculcate brutality and violence in their recruits. That includes sexualised violence, and proving your heterosexuality as a man by harassing women.

The results of the survey are terrible but not surprising. The military is not an institution that can ever be fixed in this regard. Violence, masculinity, patriarchy and racism are what it’s all about. I’m not saying this to have a go at individuals who join up. It’s a point about the institution and the role it plays, especially in a country with such a long imperialist history as Britain. If we ever want to get anywhere in ending this kind of crap for good we’re going to need to take radical steps like as a society choosing to dismantle the British military apparatus.

hh // Posted 7 July 2008 at 11:33 pm

“One in five servicemen still did not think that telling a junior woman she would get a promotion if she slept with them was harassment; asked why they thought harassment cases happened, 46 per cent of the men said it was because women ‘over-reacted’.”

That’s only 20%. For the military. I mean, c’mon, I think that’s something.

Here’s a question though: Is it ok for women to *offer* sexual favours hoping for benefits like a promotion? Is it ok for women or men to use their sexuality for any strategic purpose at all? If so, sex can be used as a strategic tool or currency in any relationship (well, ok, that’s a rethorical question, it can and is and will always be used in that way).

Laura // Posted 7 July 2008 at 11:40 pm

Agreed, Socialist Cephalopod. It’s totally unsurprising, but as long as the military exists in its current form and women want to be part of it, I think any attempt to deal with sexual harassment must be positive (if rather optimistic). We can argue about whether or not women should be playing a part in an institution that causes such harm to so many women across the globe – Germaine Greer spoke persuasively and passionately against women fighting on the front line when I saw her a few years ago – but the fact is that there are women serving right now and they deserve better. We all do.

Sarah // Posted 8 July 2008 at 9:16 am

To some extent I agree with that too – and I think this is a perennial problem for feminists as many of us are pacifist to some degree and have serious problems with the whole military institution and culture, being as it is pretty much the etipome of patriarchy.

But, the women in the military are women too – and like women who work in the sex industry, we don’t have to agree with or like what they do to believe they should be treated with basic respect as human beings, and not subjected to harrassment and sexual violence from their colleagues and superiors.

Anna // Posted 8 July 2008 at 9:21 am

*shakes head* Liam Fox.. oh god. I have the misfortune of living in his constituency so I’m going to rock up at his surgery [wearing my ‘my marxist feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard’ shirt] and ask him what the hell he’s playing at.

12 week abortion limit? sanctioning sexual harassment in the armed forces he will rather soon be in charge of? jesus wept. he really did.

what an absolutely awful specimen.

BareNakedLady // Posted 8 July 2008 at 9:53 am

Why is all the response to this from the senior officers and the defence secretary (at least, the responses being quoted) all ‘zomg but we need the pinups’ when women are being sexually harrassed and assaulted?

Having not read the report, can anyone tell me whether the relatively harmless issue (compared with the rest of it) of pinups is actually even mentioned?

Anon // Posted 8 July 2008 at 12:24 pm

Agree with all comments.

I work for the MOD as a civilian. My “equality & diversity” training was a joke. The (white, male, heterosexual of course) trainer indeed suggested that yeah, “it’s the military – it’s different!” and a woman who had complained about walking past the training ground on a base as she felt uncomfortable was “over-reacting” and should just go a different way. Hmmm, yes like women are supposed to wear modest clothes, not drink and not walk anywhere alone after dark to avoid rape! It really bugged me because the trainer also kept saying “it wasn’t PC”. In the end, operational effectiveness is better if all involved respect each other and work as a team.

There is just no need for sexism. Saying it’s militatry culture is just laziness.

I don’t think the military is a tool of the patriarchy – I’d love to see a world without war, but in the end, we need to be able to defend ourselves and that won’t change.

Amy // Posted 8 July 2008 at 4:43 pm

It just struck me that the UK government have touted ensuring women’s rights as one of the reasons they’re fighting to overthrow the Taliban (even if that’s not the real reason), and yet they can’t even ensure women’s rights within their own army.

Sabre // Posted 8 July 2008 at 5:03 pm

I agree with the comment from ‘Anon’ that we need to have a military to defend ourselves because sadly war does happen. We should not forget the important role played by our armed forces in peacekeeping abroad. It’s about preventing violence too. It is possible to be anti-war and pro-military, and many people in the forces are anti-war, they are just willing to also be the ones who risk their lives for their country. So the military can be reconciled with feminist views.

The funny thing about the armed forces is that they see themselves as very different from the civilian world. Therefore there is sometimes this belief that the same rules do not apply there. It’s all about operational effectiveness, and to hell with any PC crap that is perceived to be getting in the way of that. Those attitudes desperately need changing, and they have been (although too slowly perhaps).

I’d be interested to hear of the differing experiences of women in the army, navy and air force. I think the air force is far more progressive than the others but I couldn’t quantify that.

Socialist Cephalopod // Posted 8 July 2008 at 7:17 pm

I absolutely agree that women who have chosen to join the military deserve better. And certainly from political figures of authority you’d at least like them to make a pretence of taking this major problem seriously instead of dismissing it out of hand.

But I’m sorry I don’t agree that we need the British military, and I would and have argued with my friends, male and female, when they’ve thought about joining up. The reason for this is that it is the frontline organisation of a brutal state that has played a devastating role in the world. I’m proud to say I’ve managed to persuade a couple of people not to join the British military, because I knew what it would do to them-brutalise them, encourage and inculcate sexism, racism and homophobia, and ultimately use them to enforce the will of the British government abroad on countries where the people don’t get to decide their own fate because we decide it for them.

Why do we accept the need for this institution? Why do we feel that there is some mythical threat that makes us need to have such a bloated capacity for causing violence and harm, to others and to the young people that join up? What threats there are are the result of the British state’s previous misguided policies, and could be much better dealt with by making a radical break and starting to deal with the rest of the world fairly.

The British military isn’t used for peacekeeping or preventing violence. It is used for upholding the interests of the Briths government and those who decide the government’s policies. These are overwhelmingly white, sexst, upper class men.

In that context we have to see that the military in Britain is not a politically neutral instituion with some bad practices. Violence overlaid with sexism and racism is what it’s all about. Of course we should condemn the abuse of women that takes place within it. I’m just saying we should be realistic about the possibility of ending it in the current British military. The military can’t be changed in isolation from the state who’s will it upholds.

Leigh // Posted 8 July 2008 at 7:22 pm

I’d like to see some surveys of what men say when asked to describe what does or doesn’t constitute harassment. I wonder if most men know that there’s a place to actually draw the line, and where exactly they place that line.

Anne Onne // Posted 8 July 2008 at 7:53 pm

If they must protect the sacrosanct right to have pin-ups, May I suggest heterosexual women officers and gay men are allowed to conspicuously display porn that takes THEIR fancy, in return, without harassment? It’s only fair!

It’s obviously bollocks that sexism should be OK in the miltary, but I’m not surprised, seeing as the military is very secretive about how harassment, bullying, rape and other really horrific internal incidents are dealt with. The mentality that the military can only work if people are trained as they are now is really problematic, and for me, the whole system is problematic in the extreme.

On the other hand, I fully support women’s rights to join the military, serve fully, and without harassment, and be recognised. The military still needs a lot of change, and some people want to do that from the inside. More power to them. I just hope it won’t let them down too badly, and that people on the outside, as well as inside, should fight to make it better.

It’s no different to any field, in a way. Some people join because of a desire to help and make a difference, and some to get the power to manipulate and hurt people. There are plenty of good people in the military, and plenty of abusive misogynists everywhere. Obvious, but always good to remember.

Laura // Posted 8 July 2008 at 8:23 pm

“If they must protect the sacrosanct right to have pin-ups, May I suggest heterosexual women officers and gay men are allowed to conspicuously display porn that takes THEIR fancy, in return, without harassment? It’s only fair!”

I meant to suggest that in my post!

Dan // Posted 8 July 2008 at 8:27 pm

Socialist, if you don’t believe in nation defence then you’re living in a dream.

Non interventionism is fine, stick to yourself and bother with no one else, but if this nation did become defenceless (No troops, no nukes no anything) I’d be off to France, despite popular to contary belief they’ll at least defend themselves because they know too well the horrors of occupation.

Money, land and power is why wars are waged, three simple reasons that continue the natural human state of war.

Torygirl // Posted 8 July 2008 at 9:38 pm

The military is a fraternity, first and foremost.

Socialist, there are two ways of looking at it, one is at its international role as determined by government and the monarch (soldiers take their oaths to the queen not the PM), the other is on an individual level as soldiers. There’s no point holding individual soldiers responsible for the decisions made by governments.

Basic training is now for ‘girls’ (sic) as it isn’t as tough as it used to be, but I’d imagine it’s still pretty awful. I’d be in tears and begging to go home in minutes. The result of this is that soldiers – almost entirely male – become so knitted with each other that the group, on many levels, is impenetrable. They are trained to be prepared to die as individuals for the sake of the group, after all. Having said that, frontline troops are a relatively small number.

Sexual harrassment, ‘jokes’, and general sexual activity is part of that. I find it the way that women are discussed nauseating and can’t help but wonder what they’ve done to deserve such comments apart from not be virgins.

Anne Onne, the majority sign up for a bit of excitement and the good prospects the army offers. Most are barely more than children and have no idea when they sign up what the army will do to them as people and the demands it will make on family life as they get older.

Civvy rules don’t apply a lot of the time. That’s not an excuse for misogynist and violent personal behaviour but it’s difficult to explain to people who have no experience of army life. It’s like, as part of a military family, you realise from the outset that you and your children take second place to the army.

None of it is likely to change unless there were to be a huge increase in the numbers of women signing up, which I can’t see happening any time soon. Among the rank and file it’s like a men’s club where they act out ways of behaving when women are excluded. The few that aren’t just have to keep up, keep laughing, take the ‘jokes’ as jokes.

Sorry for that rambling rant, misogyny and the military is something I live with.

E-Visible Woman // Posted 8 July 2008 at 9:47 pm

Costa Rica abolished their military in 1949 and they’ve been fine.

Dan // Posted 8 July 2008 at 10:16 pm

Costa Rica isn’t that important and it’s neighbours aren’t either since alot of them still have their own problems.

Costa Rica still has defence force, the public force, they’ve always had a form of defence.

They still weild “evil” weapons, if invaded they plan to figth a guerilla war which is usually very unfair to the civilian population.

During 1996, the Ministry of Public Security established the Fuerza Pública or Public Force which reorganized and eliminated the Civil Guard, Rural Assistance Guard, and Frontier Guards as separate entities; they are now under the Ministry and operate on a geographic command basis performing ground security, law enforcement, counter-narcotics, and border patrol functions.

Jennifer Yong // Posted 9 July 2008 at 2:18 am

Putting aside the debate of the military’s purpose and/or importance, the issue here remains that women and LBGTQ’s are getting a hard time in the armed forces. This discrimination cannot be excused on the grounds that the military is a different world from the civilian one.

It is clear that the sexism, racism and homophobia here is institutionalized, which means we must fight doubly hard to overcome it, not take a back seat, shrug our shoulders and accept ‘the way things are’.

If all feminists were like this then there would never have been any feminist movement at all! I may not hold the armed forces in high esteem, but I would defend any individual’s choice of career and would hope that they receive equal rights to any other human being. This means they are able to work in an environment where they feel secure and are not abused or humiliated on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation or otherwise.

Amy // Posted 9 July 2008 at 12:55 pm

Arguments about whether we need the military per se aside – is it not true that the govt spends *way* too much on defence? Do we really need more trident nuclear subs, for example? The way defence is prioritised over, say, health and education, seems very patriarchal to me. Putting all your effort into making sure other people know what big guns you’ve got seems like schoolboy behaviour to me. It’s the same attitude as the teenagers on estates showing off about their knives etc – just on a larger scale.

Leigh // Posted 9 July 2008 at 1:52 pm

Amy- ARE the military given priority over health and education? Wikipedia give the national budget for the military as £33.6billion, and the budget for the NHS as £94billion.

Lynne Miles // Posted 9 July 2008 at 2:14 pm

Health, defence and expenditure have always been the big three. Health is by far the greatest expenditure, defence used to come second (ahead of education) until 2006-7 when education got a massive boost and overtook defence, where it remains (this all according to Comprehensive Spending Review/ Departmental Expenditure Limit data available here – Table 1.3 and other equivalent docs for previous years)

I have knocked up a little graph (I am procrastinating at work). I can’t work out how to make it appear in the comments box, but it’s here.

Torygirl // Posted 9 July 2008 at 8:50 pm

Well the military needs a good whack of funds seeing as it costs something like £10 000 a day to keep a Chinouk operational. Disgusting…

The treatment of women within the forces is a disgrace but civvies don’t have a hope in hell of changing the military without becoming part of it.

If (sounding like my dad LOL) they brought back National Service for both sexes then there might be a fighting chance of stamping it down. That would be due simply to the growth in numbers of women.

However, that’s hardly a desirable method!

Shea // Posted 9 July 2008 at 10:15 pm

Brillant comments from Amy & Jennifer Drew.

Yes having had the UK & US govts & military tout their credentials as the liberators of women in the middle east, it looks like maybe they should get their own houses in order first.

Actually if we look at the outrage that greated the women soldiers (Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman) at Abu Ghraib, the military does take sexual harassment and racism very seriously- when it happens to men (and when they are forced to). (It is interesting to note how much media attention focused on the women in these cases even though far more men were perpetrators). So its not “military culture” its just a further excuse for ingrained machismo & abuse. If the armed forces actually valued their female and homosexual service personnel they would make more damn effort.

Shea // Posted 9 July 2008 at 10:27 pm

Socialist Cephalopod — I’m in absolute agreement with you and I couldn’t put it better. Look at the current escalation of violence in the middle east. Israel test long rang missiles, so Tehran responds. Its sabre rating and posturing of the worst kind. Violence begets violence, war begets war, we are sowing the seeds of future conlfict in the middle east on a daily basis.

This is Orwells perpetual war. Never ending and ultimately unwinnable.

Amy // Posted 14 July 2008 at 3:32 pm

Leigh and Lynne:

The NHS may get more money than defence in terms of budget, but you can’t just look at these figures alone, you have to look at whether they’re proportionate to the need of the service, and whether they’re justified. I would argue that the £94bn spent on the NHS isn’t enough – it is still woefully underfunded as anyone who has suffered illness and had to deal with the NHS as part of their daily lives (I include myself in this) will know. I would also argue that the £33bn spent on defence is too much – I think it is disproportionate. To put it in context, the UK has the third biggest military budget in the world, and one of the biggest armies in Europe. When you have to wait months (even years) for NHS treatment, and then you read that the govt are buying yet more trident subs at millions of pounds a pop, the message sent out by the govt is that stockpiling nuclear weapons is more important than the health of the population. No govt is realistically going to use a trident missile, as setting one off would cause a nuclear winter that would last for five years and more than likely kill everyone and devastate the whole planet. Therefore the money is wasted. I stand by my earlier comments as in my view the NHS’s and education’s needs are far, far greater than the military’s. And by the way – the govt spends 85 times as much on research and development in the military as it does on research and development into renewable energy. That’s another good message the govt is sending out…

welshlady // Posted 8 October 2008 at 2:51 pm

Hi there everyone,

I’m new to this site and have read with great interest the comments on this topic.

I was wondering if anyone wanted to share their thoughts, views, etc on ‘pin up’ women used as nose art on military craft? I know it is not permitted any more per se, but am trying to research it from a feminist far any general comments I have found are that females in the forces were never offended by them..but I haven’t actually found any articles authored by women about it!

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