Last week week, an Army general, a colonel and a command sergeantlost their jobs when a months-long review of their leadership at Fort Hood found that the three ignored rampant sexual harassment and assault at the Army base. Eleven other leaders were also suspended from their jobs.
The review was commissioned in June after the remains of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who had disappeared from the base two months earlier, were discovered. In the days before she disappeared, Guillén had confided to her family that she was being sexually harassed by a sergeant, but she was afraid to report the abuse. The resulting136-page report documents high rates of sexual harassment and assault among young soldiers of low rank at Fort Hood. People of all genders reported to investigators that they had either experienced or witnessed acts of sexual abuse. An overwhelming number of the survivors are women.
High-ranking officers told investigators that Fort Hood wasn’t safe for female soldiers, with one confiding, “Once leadership leaves for the day, there is no accountability in the barracks or on post.” One civilian sexual assault response coordinator, whose job is to document reports of sexual assault from soldiers, told investigators that “the victims of these alleged and unacceptable acts are victimized over and over again in many different ways after initially summing up the courage to finally report them” while “alleged perpetrators of these incidents seem to remain in their units without any fear of being moved or punished.”
All told, the portrait drawn of Fort Hood in the dryly titled “Report Of The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee” is shocking and repulsive. But it is not unfamiliar.
Last month, we learned that nearly 100,000 people, mostly men, have come forward to report that they had been sexually assaulted or abused when they were members of Boy Scouts of America. The reports were made in response to a Nov. 16 deadline for filing complaints of sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts before the organization’s bankruptcy is finalized.
It is an astounding number that eclipses theestimated 9,000 people who have reported sexual abuse by priests over the years. Like institutional leaders before them at the Catholic Church, higher-ups at Boy Scouts of America routinelyfailed to report cases of sexual abuse to law enforcement.
Sexual abuse on the scale of what has been seen at Fort Hood and in Boy Scouts of America doesn’t happen by accident. It is done by design. But how? Easy. Both organizations created cultures devoted to traditional masculinity ideology—a constellation of behaviors that includes stoicism, anti-femininity, competitiveness, the avoidance of appearing weak, and attraction to risk and violence. Boy Scouts of America created theirs under the guise of building “moral character” while Fort Hood built theirs in service to “combat mission readiness.”
Last year, the American Psychological Associationreleased guidelines to help psychologists work more effectively with men and boys. The guidelines draw onfour decades of research showing that traditional masculinity is mentally and physically harmful for people of all genders—men, women, transgender and nonbinary. This research includes findings by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that “adherence to traditional gender role norms” and “hyper-masculinity” are risk factors for perpetrating sexual assault and abuse.
The clearest example of how Boy Scouts of America’s culture elevated traditional masculinity was its ban on gay scouts and troop leaders, which was in place until 2015. Former Boy Scouts President Downing B. Jenks explained the organization’s rationale in aposition statement: “We do not believe that homosexuality and leadership in Scouting are appropriate. We will continue to select only those who in our judgment meet our standards and qualifications for leadership.”
At Fort Hood, meanwhile, women are routinely demeaned. Investigators witnessed this dynamic during focus groups: “When female soldiers spoke up about their concerns, they were frequently shut down and essentially drowned out by the male soldiers. There were many incidents when a courageous female soldier would speak up regarding her experiences with the [sexual assault program] … only to be contradicted and even ridiculed by other male members in the group in front of both the interviewer and the JAG officer annotating responses.”
Stories shared by women with investigators during confidential interviews ranged from male sergeants who openly remarked that “females are here for our entertainment” to male soldiers who routinely held betting pools to see who could “get to” new female soldiers assigned to the unit. One female platoon sergeant said that the experience of sexual harassment or assault was “an initiation to Fort Hood.” After cataloging pages of such stories, the investigators concluded, “A toxic culture was allowed to harden and set.”
A basic tenet of sexual violence prevention in large organizations is to prohibit practices, protocols or policies that dehumanize people. Organizations that tolerate misogyny, racism or homophobia — and the list continues — will see higher rates of sexual harassment and abuse than those that do not. Fort Hood and Boy Scouts of America each built cultures based on the premise that some people are worth more than others.
Building a culture on this lie makes other lies, ethical lapses and abuses not just possible but acceptable. It is undeniable that Boy Scouts of America and the Army have been forces for good in the lives of millions of people. But that good is not a greater good, and it does not excuse the decisions by leaders to minimize, ignore or deny the harm done to individuals for the sake of organizational reputation and readiness.
Fort Hood investigators say that the solution can be found in better leadership, writing, “Sexual assault and sexual harassment, a form of bullying, is fratricide. A climate of zero tolerance must be driven deep into the ranks.” This is not quite true. Zero tolerance is a surface-level leadership strategy for which exceptions are quickly made—because people, circumstances and day-to-day life are complicated.
The only way forward for both organizations is to dismantle their toxic cultures and build new ones in their place that respect the full humanity of people of all genders, sexual orientations and races. That means building cultures that manage people’s needs for belonging, inclusion and representation in authentic, genuine ways. The first step in this work will always be taking reports of sexual abuse seriously.
Gina Scaramella is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.