Battle on a New Front: Sexual Assault and the Canadian Military

In the coming months, the Canadian military will be forced to fight on a wholly new front: the home front. In late November, a notice of action was filed against the Canadian military on behalf of past members of the military. Although details of the specific allegations will not be released until later in their statement of claim, the notice of action indicates that our nation’s armed force may soon be held to account for not preventing crimes, such as sexual assault and harassment, against its military members by their own comrades.

This notice of action comes on the heels of a report released by Statistics Canada entitled Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, 2016, which can be found here. The report was based on a survey of over 43,000 active members—Regular Force and Primary Reserve— of the Canadian Armed Forces between April and June 2016. The total number of members in the Canadian Armed Forces is 81, 700, meaning that the response rate for the survey was approximately 53%. The survey focused on two time periods. The first time period was the 12 months prior to taking the survey, and the second time period was the total length of time the respondent had been a member of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Several report findings made news across the country and received the majority of major news outlets’ attention. One disturbing statistic related to the Regular Force branch of the military, which is comprised of full time military personnel. Regular Force members, compared to the general working population in Canada, were 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted if male and 4 times more likely if female. Results from the survey also showed that, within the military, women were 4 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in the 12-month period preceding the survey. Furthermore, more than one-quarter of women had been victims of sexual assault at least once since they joined the military. It is important to note that sexual assault included unwanted touching and this activity was the more common type of assault reported by the respondents.

Overall, the report found that 36% of men and 51% of women were of the opinion that inappropriate sexual behaviour was a problem within the Canadian military, and nearly one third of all respondents felt that the new military initiative to curb sexual violence—Operation Honour— would be ineffective.

Other report findings have received less attention from the media but still offer important insights into the range of sexual assault experienced by both men and women in the military. For example, the younger the member of the military, the more likely they were to experience sexual assault. Statistics showed that those 29 years of age and younger were 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in the past 12 months than personnel 40 years of age and older. In addition, women 24 years of age and younger were 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to men of a similar age group. This made young women the demographic most vulnerable to sexual assault in the military.

What message does this send to the young Canadians, especially girls, who desire to one day serve in the armed forces of this nation? It suggests that, instead of being honoured for their choice, they will be targets of inappropriate touching and violent assaults by perpetrators among their own ranks.

Attention should also be paid to the fact that, while it is true that men are most often the perpetrators of sexual assault in the military (65%), male victims are most often assaulted at the hands of women (55%). This is not an insignificant number. Rarely does the topic of women perpetrators come up in discussions of sexual victimization. It is likely due to the establishment of a culture that does not take female sexual offending seriously. This differential treatment, evidenced by a lack of attention, is simply unjust.

Male victimization also has characteristics distinct from those of females. Males were far more likely, in a single incident, to be victimized by two or more perpetrators (39%), whereas this was only the case in 15% of incidents involving a female victim. This ‘multiple offender’ style of attack on male victims is particularly troubling given the increased level of planning and coordination that would need to take place before initiating the crime.

When it comes to the lasting impacts of sexual assault, men and women respondents viewed things differently. Men were more than twice as likely than women to consider the incidents not serious enough to report. The statistics do not disaggregate incidents by level of seriousness and then compare across gender. This leaves open the question of whether the incidents were truly not as serious or if men simply felt more pressure to ‘deal with it’ and not complain.

In terms of emotional impacts of the incident, female victims were significantly more likely to report feeling angry (48%), upset (49%), or more cautious (49%). On the other hand, just over a quarter of men reported a negative emotional response to their victimization such as feeling angry (28%), upset (24%), or cautious (28%). Once again, these statistics raise important questions about the difference between how men and women in the Canadian military react to their victimization. Could it be that men have been further indoctrinated into emotional acceptance of abuse? Is this why they don’t have the same degree of negative responses as women? Unfortunately, the survey does not add further context to the responses. This leaves the existing data ripe for subsequent research on gendered differences in victimization.

It could be that an organized response to sexual assault within the military cannot be effective until it recognizes that males and females appear to manage their victimization differently. Unsurprisingly, men were far less likely then women to use sexual assault services after the crime (74% and 92%, respectively).

This report and the subsequent notice of claim for a class action lawsuit clearly indicate that past and present members of our military are under siege. The Statistics Canada report and upcoming civil proceedings serve to unearth an ugly truth about life in the Canadian Armed Forces. We can only hope that their effect is to generate public action to protect those who have dedicated their lives to protecting us.

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