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Soldiers and sex: Can men evolve?

By Pepper Schwartz, Special to CNN
May 26, 2013 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pepper Schwartz: Many stories of males' sex harassment of female colleagues
  • She says newest example: West Point sergeant took pictures of women in shower
  • She says many men still think their appetites and access to women are an inalienable right
  • Schwartz: Military must require education program at every rank to teach men self control

Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 17 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar." She is the AARP Love and Relationship Ambassador and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that gathers research on American families, and chief expert for perfectmatch.com.

(CNN) -- Lately, the scandals just keep on coming about military men's sexual harassment of their female colleagues. The headlines bring up a number of questions (in addition to a rising feeling of nausea) about male sexual predation: Are men biologically, unstoppably, wired for sexual aggression? Or are they only sexually volatile if the culture where they grew up or where they work supports ideas about the sexual domination and objectification of women?

OK, we already know a lot about the answer to this question. Yes, there is some biological underpinning for male sexual aggression but also men will have different sexual beliefs and behaviors based on their early models (both family and friends): whether or not they had close relationships with sisters or women friends, and whether they have been exposed to a culture of respect or disdain for women.

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

Men are not helpless slaves to their DNA or their hormones. Your average Dad or boyfriend is not surreptitiously videotaping women in a school shower

On the other hand, a sergeant at West Point (!) has been accused of doing just that, and taken with the variety of sexual offenses that seem to be epidemic in the military, one might reasonably assume that there is a vulnerability in a certain kind of man, in a certain kind of environment, for foul sexual behavior. (Can women be guilty of similar sexual trespass, yes, but it is rare, and not systemic in any institution.)

Hagel: Scourge of sexual assault 'must be stamped out'

This proclivity for ignoring women's right to choose who sees them naked or who has sex with them is a manifestation of an unhealthy gender culture in the military, but it isn't unique to that institution. Many men still believe that their sexual appetite is irresistible, and that sexual access to women, by any means necessary, is a natural, even inalienable, right of men. Tempt men by putting women in a macho man's club, and what do you expect?

I am not too sympathetic with this line of reasoning. If we follow its logic to its natural conclusion, we'll need to cover up women everywhere, institute American purdah and get women out of public life so that men can harness their sexuality and focus on their job. But that isn't going to happen.

Voyeur allegations hit West Point
Did sergeant film female cadets?

Then what will it take to end this seemingly endless parade of men who harass and undermine military women? I think we need a serious re-education program for all military men. Most young men will not have reviewed their sexual values or thought about why they feel or act the way they do in sexual situations before they enter the service.

But particularly as more women enter combat roles, military men need to learn more about their own sexual psyche and why they may have feelings of aggression, entitlement or expect sexual privileges. I am not so naive that I believe a program or series of programs will change all men into feminists and gentlemen, but it will change many of them into safer colleagues and partners. Those men who can't be respectful need to be dismissed from service.

Sex assaults threaten military trust, Obama tells Naval graduates

This isn't an immediate fix. These kinds of programs would have to be instituted for every man at every rank throughout each branch of our military operations. Why? Because let's face it: You can only have so many cases of foxes guarding the hen house until you know that contempt for women's sexual rights is threaded through the leadership as well as the rank and file.

Tell me how several men, who were in charge of sexual harassment policy, were implicated in sex harassment? What kind of careful selection process for those jobs would have produced the result of the enforcer becoming the offender?

Ultimately the debate over men's true sexual nature is of minimal importance. I don't care if we can prove that men are horny by nature; civic and social life is by definition unnatural. We all have to learn how to work with our desires and operate in ways that respect everyone's integrity and safety. If we change the gender culture in the military by changing men's hearts and minds, their sexual "nature" won't be a problem.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.

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