carol p. christ 2002 colorRape is not something that “just happens” in the military. It is an inevitable product of military training. Unless and until we understand this and change the way soldiers are trained, we will never be able to stop rape in the US military or any other military system.

The right to rape women of the enemy has been considered one of the “prerogatives” of warriors since the beginning of warfare.  Propaganda-Poster-MasculinityCould “military training” which “turns boys into men” by calling them “girls” or “women” or “gay” in order to break down their self-esteem and remold their “character” as soldiers be one of the reasons rape is such a pervasive problem in the military? Are “boys” being taught that the only way to “prove” their “manhood” is to replace “identification” with women—their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives—with a new “identity” as a “dominant male” who “dominates” women and weaker men?  I fear that if we fail to address the “core issue” of “military training,” we will never get to the root of the rape culture that pervades the military.

Unfortunately the model of training boys to be men by humiliating them with taunts that they are “girls” or “gay” is not limited to the military but is also a regular part of sports training.  In both the military and sports, terms like “sissy,” “wuss,” “pussy,” “faggot”–and worse–are regularly used by male authority figures in order to “spur” boys “on” to feats of “physical achievement” that require “punishing” their own bodies and the bodies of others.  The use of these epithets in the context of humiliation makes it clear that “a man” is not “a woman” or “a gay”:  “a man” is someone who has eradicated all of his “feminine” qualities while learning to dominate and humiliate women and effeminate men.

Is it any surprise that rape of women and effeminate or gay men is pervasive in the military and in sports culture?

Boys who submit to sports training or military training “suffer” physically.  They are taught that “punishing” their bodies by “going the extra mile” when their bodies are exhausted and begging for rest is what will make them a “man.”  In this process they are taught that to “listen to what your body is telling you” is what girls and faggots do.  If boys are to become men, they must ignore the messages their bodies are sending them.

Is it any wonder that boys who are taught to punish their own bodies find it “acceptable” to punish the bodies of others?

Boys who submit to sports training or military training “suffer” psychological humiliation.  They learn that emotions and feeling are “girly.”  At a vulnerable time in their life, they learn that if they express emotions or feel for others, they may be viewed as “less” manly—or worse, as a woman or a gay. “During basic training, the recruit’s sense of individuality and agency is broken down through strict discipline, strenuous work, humiliation, insults, and irrational and arbitrary punishments. The sense of self is then rebuilt as a soldier, so that by the end of basic training, soldiers have replaced their old identity with a new one relevant to their new social world. Old loyalties to family and community are replaced with a loyalty to the soldiers’ new primary group, their military unit (Cooley 1909; Manning 1991; Morris 1996; Moskos 1970).

Should we find it mystifying that those who have been humiliated seek to humiliate others?

Their moral orientations change also, as killing another human being, the most prohibited of all immoral acts, becomes not only permitted but praiseworthy in the context of warfare (Bourke 1999; Grossman 1995).”   In military training, and in the sports training that is modeled on it, another of the “the most prohibited of all immoral acts”—the rape of women and girls—”becomes not only permitted but praiseworthy.”

Should we be surprised that soldiers and athletes rape?

If we understand that not only soldiers but the whole military chain of command has been “reprogrammed” in basic training to view  “manhood” as intimately tied to the domination of “girly” or “womanly” traits in oneself and others, we also should not be surprised to learn that the military chain of command is turning a blind eye to rape.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is right to insist—and to keep insisting—that the military chain of command has shown itself incapable of dealing “the problem of rape” in the military.  Unfortunately, “Siding with the Pentagon’s top brass, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation Wednesday to keep commanders involved in deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases, rejecting an aggressive plan [proposed by Gillibrand] to stem sex-related crimes in the armed forces by overhauling the military justice system.”  The rejected bill, which was co-sponsored by Barbara Boxer and Susan Collins, builds on precedents established in the UK, Israel, Canada, and Australia which take felony crimes out of the hands of military authorities.  This bill would insure prosecution of a larger proportion of military rapes (don’t forget the massive failures of the criminal justice system in dealing with rape), but it does not address the “rape culture” of the military which is a major source of the problem.

The problem to which the rejected legislation points is not simply the problem of the military protecting its own. The problem goes back to the way the military trains boys to become men.  This problem is not as old as time, but it is as old as patriarchy and war.

To date the connection between “the problem of rape” in the military and in sports and the degradation of women, girls, homosexuals, and anything viewed as “feminine” in military training and in sports training, has not become a matter for widespread public discussion.  I suspect that until this “cat” is “let out of the bag” we will not be able to address the deeper reasons for “the problem of rape” in the military and in sports culture.

We have to stop teaching boys that “becoming men” means learning to punish their own bodies, to suppress their natural human feelings, and to learn to dominate others, especially women, girls, and gays. Until we change sports and military training, it is unrealistic to think that we can solve the problem of rape in the military or among athletes.

Dare I suggest that we also need to transform images of God and Goddess that have been shaped by warfare and domination?

*Note the not very subtle phallic symbolism in the Navy recruitment poster.

Carol P. Christ has just returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  The culture of ancient Crete, the last flowering of Old Europe, was not based on warfare and domination.  Carol spoke on a WATER Teleconference recently.  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org


  1. Carol, as one who counseled men in and out of the military during the Vietnam war and for years afterwards, you have it so right! The military, as it exists now, will never be able to stop the abuse of women, and it would have to be a unique military that would honor women….we have a long road to go, and I sometimes doubt if it can be transformed.
    Thank you for such an excellent post.
    And yes! to the need to transform God and Goddesses images.


  2. No, it is no surprise that military men and athletes all over the world and throughout history think it’s part of their job to rape women. This is why I do not support the military (getting shot at is another part of their job; they signed up for it) and have nothing but scorn for professional athletes. Your blog is (as usual) excellent. Brava!


  3. Thank you for a really good post. I fear that these ideas of what a man should be are so deeply ingrained that the programming begins in school. I was repeatedly told that I should have been born a girl and was not a real boy because I steadfastly refused to shoot birds with airgun pellets, pull the legs of spiders, torment pets and because I much preferred the library to the sports field. But, despite all such attempts at “normalisation” I feel that a real man is one who honours women, cares for the natural world and cultivates the mind and the heart. And a real man will also stand against the inference that being born a girl is second best.


  4. All so true (sad to say). And yes, yes, yes – definitely dare to suggest the need to transform images of God and Goddess that have been shaped by warfare and domination?


  5. Thank you Carol for this very important and timely piece. Related to your discussion here on rape culture is the very serious issue of women being raped in the military and the military’s refusal to address it. Have you seen “The Invisible War?” Also, there was just an article today on CNN’s website: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/16/us/military-recruitment/index.html.

    Thanks so much for posting this. We need to be giving this topic far more attention.


  6. Carol, thank you for this very timely and thought provoking post. You have reminded us of the insidious interaction between patriarchal and dualistic paradigms that allow for the denigration if not demonization of all that is female and hence construct notions of masculinity and femininity. We are thus reminded that the problem lies beyond military and sports cultures(which are problematic), but points to the patriarchal/dualistic way by which we see and order our world, understand ourselves and even divine/sacred realities. Much work to do, much deconstruction needed. Thanks for keeping that in front of us.


  7. Thanks, Carol, for this fantastic post! Here’s an anecdote about how boys’ socialization works: When my daughter Linnea was a little girl of four, a neighbor who had a boy her age was her child-care provider. There was another boy their age in the group and 2 smaller kids. When my daughter joined the group the child-care provider’s son played fantasty games with her (house, school, hospital, etc.) and “boy’s” games (i.e. shoot-em-ups) with the other, much more macho boy. This neighbor boy used to come to our house and play dress-ups until his mother (the child-care provider) forbade him to come, since we only had what she considered girls’ dress-ups. During this period, he also stopped playing with Linnea and only played macho games with the other boy, specifically creating guns out of anything available, even though his mother forbid them. So this little boy, who was so androgynous, was molded into a macho kid. I believe that fear of homosexuality lay behind this change, one that undergirds the military and sports arenas as well.


  8. What if we stopped training men in the military and switched to an all female military, an all woman police force, and changed the entire structure. Women would be in charge of all the guns and national defense. We’d say that men are inherently incapable of avoiding the brainwashing of male dominance…What’s the point of trying to change men, such a waste of time. Just take them out of the fields they can’t handle, and see what women would do.

    I know what I would do with this power… what would you do with it?


  9. Mary Daly noted all this 35 years ago in Gyn/Ecology. Too bad no one reads her now because of slanderous and unfounded claims of racism.


    1. Maybe you should send a copy to Gillibrand and Boxer with recommendations on the pages about the military!


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