Speakers at a symposium hosted by a taxpayer-funded institute this week said some aspects of masculinity contribute to mass violence and criticized the United States for spending more on counterterrorism operations than sexual assault prevention efforts.
The “Men, Peace, and Security Symposium: Agents of Change,” held at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on Monday and Tuesday, “aim[ed] to better understand how the ascribed norms of men and masculine identities contribute to, and may even help mitigate, violent conflict and post-conflict,” according to USIP’s website.
USIP was “established by Congress in 1984 as an independent, federally-funded national security institution,” according to its website.
While most of the event featured panels on the behaviors and actions of men in violence-ridden states such as Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, participants also discussed the state of sexual violence in America and the U.S. military.
The World Bank and the North American branch of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute provided the funding and some of the staff for the event, a USIP spokesperson said. USIP received about $37 million in federal funding for fiscal year 2013.
Christopher Kilmartin, visiting psychology professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy (AFA) and a speaker at the event, said Americans tend to better relate to those harmed by terrorist acts or mass shootings rather than victims of sexual abuse, he said.
”We’re very adept at disidentifying with a victim of personal violence,” he said. “As a result of this implicit calculus of empathy that renders some victims as worthier than others, [the United States has] spent a trillion dollars over the last 12 years on counterterrorism, compared with last year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act, which was 2.2 billion dollars.”
Kilmartin has been called a “feminist ideologue” by critics who say his teachings are based on faulty surveys and selectively used statistics. He is the instructor of a course titled “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Men and Masculinity” at the AFA this year and is assisting with sexual violence prevention efforts in a volunteer role.
Experts say the views of feminists like Kilmartin have begun to creep into federal institutions. Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former philosophy professor, wrote in an op-ed last year for the Washington Post that a study released at the time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “suggest[ed] that rates of sexual violence in the United States are comparable to those in the war-stricken Congo.”
Sommers said the CDC study, which estimated that 1.3 million women were raped and an additional 12.6 million women and men were victims of sexual violence in the U.S. in 2010, relied on telephone surveys with low response rates and ambiguous questions for the interviewees. By comparison, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey reported 188,380 rapes and sexual assaults on females and males in 2010.
“The report proposes an array of ambitious government-sponsored ‘prevention strategies’ and recommends ‘multi-disciplinary service centers’ offering survivors psychological and legal counseling as well as housing and economic assistance,” Sommers wrote. “But survivors of sexual violence would be better served by good research and sober estimates—not inflated statistics and sensationalism.”
Other experts contacted by the Washington Free Beacon expressed alarm at Kilmartin’s juxtaposition of sexual violence with terrorist acts at an event sponsored by taxpayer-supported groups.
“His absurd comparison of this problem to terrorist violence against victims like the ones ruthlessly killed on 9/11 should not be taken seriously,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a former member of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, in an email.
Donnelly noted that Kilmartin has supported the full integration of women into combat roles as a means of fostering equality in the military and curbing sexual violence.
“On the contrary, deliberately exposing women to the most intense violence possible, in direct ground combat units that attack the enemy, sends the message that violence against women is acceptable, as long as it happens at the hands of the enemy,” she said.
“The presidential commission on which I served recognized a different cultural value: ‘Good men protect and defend women.’ Erosion of this concept in the military as well as in the civilian world may be contributing to the callous disregard for women that is so evident in incidents of abuse.”
Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff for the U.S. Army, also spoke at the USIP event. Odierno said the Army is currently developing plans that would begin to integrate women into combat roles in 2016.
He added that women will slowly be phased into traditionally all-male combat units to ensure the morale of the troops remains high.
A recent study by the Department of Defense suggests the mixing of sexes in combat units could be problematic. The study, based on anonymous surveys of more than 13,000 women, found that women who deploy to violent combat environments are almost twice as likely to experience some form of sexual assault.
Another topic discussed at the USIP conference was the role of masculinity in violence. Kilmartin said perpetrators of sexual assault “subscribe to hypermasculine ideologies.”
“They adhere to rape myths,” he said. “They believe that men and women are adversaries. And not surprisingly they have very low levels of empathy.”
Kilmartin specifically recommended more intervention by male bystanders and stronger leadership by commanders to prevent sexual violence in the military.
While recent anonymous surveys have purportedly shown a rise in sexual assault incidents in the military, experts say a more detailed analysis indicates that rates have actually declined over time.
Not everyone at the conference agreed with the assessments of Kilmartin and other speakers.
Sunil Desai, a retired Marine who served for more than 20 years, said in an interview that there are fundamental flaws with the argument that masculinity is often behind violence, which he called “an easy target to blame.” Desai is the president and treasurer of the Bindi Project, a group that advocates for the health of girls and women in India.
“[Sexual assault perpetrators] represent the minority of the total population,” he told the Free Beacon. “If you assume that masculinity is the problem, that doesn’t explain the vast majority of the remainder of the male population that’s masculine, that isn’t doing this.”
Desai said he was also concerned by suggestions that the military should restrain so-called masculine characteristics like strength, bravery, and protection and eschew all violence, even forms that are legally sanctioned in times of war, to prevent sexual assault. Such a strategy could actually lead to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, he said.
“If you tell someone that violence and the ability to conduct violence is inherently bad, and then send them off to do it, and expect them to come back and reintegrate and be mentally stable?” he said. “It’s not possible.”