Army soldiers

Taking aim at military sexual violence

27 July 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Almost a decade has passed since the “Skype scandal” made front-page news in Australia, alerting the public to a new variation on age-old sexual crimes within the Australian Defence Force, leading to internal reviews, policy changes and declarations of zero tolerance. And yet the problem of military sexual violence has not abated.

“In every country there’s the defining scandal and they’re important to understand because they shape the conversation for a long period of time,” said Megan Mackenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

In the Skype scandal in 2011 a cadet at the Australian Defence College secretly filmed himself having consensual sex with a female cadet and live-streamed the video to his mates. He and another cadet were sentenced to 12-month good behaviour bonds and the Army sacked him. The woman said she was taunted by other male cadets and bullied out of her military career.

Mackenzie sounded sceptical as she outlined the official responses in an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC). The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, immediately opened combat roles to women, a move aimed at integrating women and reducing discrimination. That was fine, Mackenzie said, “but not a solution in any way to the problem”.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, did a major review of the defence forces and some of her recommendations were adopted, including a change to the way data was collected and a new sexual assault prevention unit, “a deceptive name” because it supports victims but does not prevent assaults.

A problem that’s not getting better

Behind the scandals that catch the media’s attention is an intransigent culture of sexual misconduct. Official figures put the annual number of assaults at around 250-260 between 2014 and 2017, and reported crimes are just the tip of an iceberg.  

Mackenzie said numbers of reported incidents are increasing but as methods of data collection are improving it’s difficult to know whether service members are more comfortable about coming forward or if there are more assaults. “I do think it’s a problem that’s not getting better,” she said.

Raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, Mackenzie studied and worked at universities in Canada, the US and New Zealand before joining the University of Sydney in 2012.

In July 2019 she had funding from SSSHARC to hold a Pop-up Research Lab on military sexual violence in Australia, Canada and the US. She assembled a research group for three weeks’ work that included intensive media analysis, a masterclass and a public event titled “When will the military have its #MeToo moment?”.

Among the small group were Shannon Sampert, a Canadian academic and journalist experienced in media analysis; two US military veterans, Ellen Haring and Antonieta Rico; Sydney University researchers Eda Gunaydin and Umeya Chaudhuri, who had already worked on Mackenzie’s project, and several PhD students.

For Mackenzie, it was “a rare opportunity to set up a lab and to capacity build, a chance to show more junior scholars how do you develop a method, how do you lead. I gave them each their own components. To be honest, it would have been easier to send off the researchers and have them do it exactly my way. But it was about having them be part of the method development and that benefited me in lots of ways”.

Shannon Sampert at the Pop-up research Lab on military sexual violence in Australia, Canada and the US with Eda Gunaydin, Harry Maher and Dr Nicole Wegner.

Dr Shannon Sampert (left) at the Pop-up research Lab on military sexual violence in Australia, Canada and the US with Eda Gunaydin, Harry Maher and Dr Nicole Wegner (right). Photo credit: Megan Mackenzie. 

The project involved searching four Australian newspapers over 30 years since 1989 for articles on military sexual violence and analysing how the problem had been framed in the public conversation – as a military justice problem, a cultural problem, a gender discrimination problem? – and what solutions were offered. They have found six dominant “frames” or perspectives, which were consistent for 30 years, such as “boys will be boys” and “bad apples”.    

Australia talks about military cultures in unique ways, Mackenzie said. The term “mateship” implies loyalty, secrecy and not dobbing on your mate. In a military context that means not reporting a fellow soldier who does the wrong thing or taking a problem up the chain of command. “All of that is quite frankly rubbish, it’s so toxic and creates what scholars would call a culture of underreporting.”

Binge drinking is another “massive” problem, she said. “There’s widespread acknowledgement that binge drinking is part of ADF culture and also an acceptance of that. So it ends up becoming a justification, or at least an explanatory factor, for military sexual violence.”

Media myths about military sexual violence

While critiquing the media was not her intention, Mackenzie has made a list of common and unhelpful tropes. Most journalists fail to put individual incidents into context of the longterm problem, she said, and they report uncritically on the binge-drinking culture and repeated announcements of zero tolerance.

“I don’t blame journalists. I think we accept military leaders’ statements with less critical analysis than needed. I’ve talked to reporters and I’ve talked to Defence and they really want to do better. I think these concrete recommendations can be quite helpful,” she said.

“An honest plan for zero tolerance would be amazing. To be able to have a reporting system that’s outside the chain of command; to have better training around sexual violence and assault; to have a concrete plan of what zero tolerance might look like – does that mean perpetrators are automatically kicked out? To me that’s what zero tolerance means.”

Since the Pop-up Lab, Mackenzie has written newspaper op-ed pieces on the subject, published an article with two of the student researchers, and is working on a book with chapters on Australia, Canada and the US. As she continues this research she is collaborating on a project on military suicide.

She summarised her motivation simply: “I would like to see less war. So I’m interested in how we ask different questions about war and if we can understand the complexity of it that might lead to more effective solutions, more effective policies that may end or reduce violence.” 

Working from a gender perspective, she said, “We tend to focus more on women because we live in a patriarchal society and have more sex discrimination against women, but it’s not exclusive. It’s not about “men are the enemy and women are going to save everything”; it’s about gender and how that affects what we find normal.

“When I focus on gender I’m looking at the ways our ideas about masculinity and femininity shape behaviour and policies, so that affects men and women. When you think about military sexual violence, one of the tropes is that when men work in confines they can’t be trusted with women. That’s how sexism shapes ideas about men being natural predators, which is very negative.”

War does not begin and end neatly

In September 2019 Mackenzie ran a SSSHARC-funded Global Symposium titled “Gender, (In)security and Temporalities of Violence”, in collaboration with Laura Shepherd, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney. They brought together more than 50 scholars from disciplines including politics, international relations, security studies, anthropology and sociology, mostly women with an interest in feminism and gender, to speak on the theme of war, violence and time.

Seven international VIP guests from different continents were invited to present their diverse work focused, for example, on Afghanistan, Nepal, Yemen, Colombia, and the US military. The three-day gathering included a pre-symposium workshop for students and early-career scholars, and a two-day conference where people gave papers, with feedback and discussion.

Several guests spoke on opening night about meeting on stolen land and introduced the conference subject. War is traditionally seen as an event with a beginning and end, but rarely has such clear boundaries, they explained. There is usually longterm political violence and women are subject, often in unacknowledged ways, to invisible forms of associated violence and trauma. 

Presenters from the September 2019 SSSHARC-funded Global Symposium titled “Gender, (In)security and Temporalities of Violence”

Presenters from the September 2019 SSSHARC-funded Global Symposium titled “Gender, (In)security and Temporalities of Violence” (from left to right): Laura Shepherd, Yolande Bouka, Shweta Singh, Megan Mackenzie, Swati Parashar. Photo credit: Megan Mackenzie.

Professor Annick Wibben from the Swedish Defence University referred to the rise in domestic violence associated with sports matches and war. Assistant Professor Shweta Singh from South Asian University in New Delhi spoke of the politics of memory and collective violence, and the militarisation of communities. “Most societies are postwar,” she said. 

Roxani Krystalli proposed that “our research and life would be different if we allowed our work to be rooted in place” and said, “When I speak to people who have suffered violence it is beauty they most miss”.

Raised in Greece and the US, Krystalli has studied in Boston, worked in Colombia for a decade, and now lives in Scotland, where in September 2020 she takes up a position as Lecturer at the University of St Andrews, with a focus on feminist peace and conflict studies.

Krystalli told SSSHARC: “The symposium was unlike any [academic event] I have attended. There was a deep ethic of care running through all interactions, from informal chats under trees on the campus to meals and from panels to brief ‘thinking prompts’…The organisers facilitated an environment in which it was possible to think about violence and joy, about care and injustice, alongside each other.”

The Sydney Ideas event “When will the military have its #MeToo moment?” was held on July 17, 2019 as part of the SSSHARC Pop-up Research Lab and co-presented with the Centre for International Security Studies

The opening event of the Global Symposium “Gender, (In)security and Temporalities of Violence, September 18-21, 2019, can be seen here, with more detail at



This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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