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Women’s Conscription: A Move Towards Gender Equality?

19 Aug 2021
By Dr Mariel Barnes
The ban on women in combat was lifted Jan. 23, 2013. Though 99 percent of the careers offered in the Air Force were open to women, the decision opened more than 230,000 jobs across all branches of the military. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Senior Airman Micaiah Anthony/Released)

The recent move towards women’s incorporation into the US military draft has been hailed as promoting greater gender equality. But does this represent a true win for women?

In July 2020, the US Senate Armed Services Committee voted to include women in the “Selective Service System” – more commonly known as the military draft. Introduced by the Democratic committee chair, Jack Reed, the proposal replaces the existing references to men with “all Americans.” This move towards gender-equality in conscription was not sudden, particularly since women became eligible to serve in all combat roles in 2016. Indeed, last year, a congressional commission found that the integration of women into Selective Service was a “necessary and fair step.”  While both the House of Representatives and Senate still need to vote on the measure, many, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Coalition For Men (NCFM), perceive the Armed Services Committee’s decision as a step towards gender equality and women’s “full participation in civic life.” However, while including women in military conscription may seem like a step forward for gender equality, it is a superficial rather than substantive change, particularly as the US has not implemented conscription since the Vietnam War. If Congress is committed to gender equality in the military, it should do more to tackle the systemic sexual harassment and assault that exists within the armed services.

Although its more comprehensive biennial prevalence survey on sexual assault was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, the Department of Defense received 7816 reports of sexual assault where service members were involved either as victims or perpetrators. And this represents a one percent increase in reports from 2019, which Pentagon officials have attributed to better awareness, educations, and additional avenues for victims to come forward. However, it would be a mistake to think that sexual assault in the military is a uniquely American problem. Indeed, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been plagued by repeated incidents of sexual assault, such as  the “Skype Sex” and “Jedi Council” scandals, as well as individual cases of rape and assault, including one where a soldier smuggled a 16-year-old girl onto a Brisbane base in the boot of his car before raping her. Most recently, the Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell told ADF Academy recruits to “avoid the ‘four As’ – alcohol, out after midnight, alone and attractive” – which seemed to place responsibility for assault on victims rather than perpetrators (although he later clarified his initial comments).

This raises an important question: why is sexual harassment and assault so pervasive and persistent within the military? For many scholars examining this issue, the answer to this question centres on military culture, which not only inhibits reductions in sexual assault but also often pervasively encourages it through socialisation. For example, informal military rituals and practices, including sexualised hazing, serve to socialise service members and minimise the seriousness of sexual assault. Once this minimisation happens, assault becomes an acceptable and allowable form of punishment for breaches and transgressions to the culture. In addition, officers sometimes also participate in the harassment and assault of individuals under their command, which, in turn, creates a permissive environment for subordinates to undertake similar actions. Finally, formal socialisation processes continue to promote concepts of masculinity, comradery, and “brotherhood,” which are the antithesis of policies designed to prevent sexual assault.

Moreover, military culture also reduces the ability of victims to report instances of assault and to seek justice. For instance, since superiors are often either involved or complicit in abuse, victims cannot follow the chain of command to report an assault. Further, even if victims report to a superior outside of their direct chain of command, they are often discouraged from pursuing recourse because it will either ruin their own career (designated a “troublemaker”) or the career of the perpetrator. Reporting sexual assault – even as a restricted report that should remain confidential – also increases the chance of victims experiencing retribution from fellow service members. And these reprisals for reporting can be extreme and career-ending. For example, Liz Luras – a US Army soldier – was raped by her date to the Marine Corps ball. When a fellow soldier reported the rape, Luras was subjected to harassment and hazing by her commanding officers and fellow soldiers, and she was raped two more times in what she believes was retribution. The situation became so untenable that Luras was eventually forced out of the Army with an honourable discharge, although her discharge papers also carried a “Personality Disorder” designation, which subsequently disqualified her from many government and law enforcement jobs. Finally, even if victims overcome all these obstacles, it highly unlikely that the perpetrators will be convicted or court martialled – much like sexual assault in civilian life. Prosecution and conviction rates have decreased dramatically since 2013, with prosecutions dropping from 23 percent to 19 percent and convictions declining from 17 percent to seven percent.

So, given the pervasive nature of military sexual assault and its connection to broader military culture, what is to be done? First and foremost, sexual harassment and assault should stop being framed as an extra-ordinary and rare occurrence perpetrated by a few “bad apples.” Framing sexual assault as a consequence of a few individuals allows militaries to deny the systemic nature of the abuse and portray themselves as well-disciplined, upstanding, and “good” institutions. Second, in the US, Congress should pass the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which would introduce sweeping changes to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice including removing the prosecution of sexual assault and retaliation away from the chain of command to an independent and dedicated office within each branch of the military as well as adding sexual harassment as an offense. Indeed, on his first full day as Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III endorsed this shift away from chain of command prosecution.

While some would argue that incorporating women into the Selective Service System represents a “win” for gender equality, this change is superficial and almost inconsequential given that the US has not implemented conscription in over 40 years – even during their longest conflict: the war in Afghanistan. Instead, if government and the armed forces are serious about gender equality in the military, then they should devote greater time and effort to addressing sexual assault in the military, which remains insidious and pervasive despite repeated scandals and deaths.

Mariel Barnes is an Assistant Professor of Public Affairs as the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her PhD from Cornell University in 2021 and previously, a BA from the University of New South Wales. Her research interests include everyday violence against women, gender equality, and the incorporation and representation of women into institutions. For more information, please see

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.