‘It was a hunting ground’: women and sexual assault in the UK armed forces

<span>Composite: Getty; MOD/PA; IWM/PA; Alamy; AP</span>
Composite: Getty; MOD/PA; IWM/PA; Alamy; AP

After graduating from university in 2017, Alice fulfilled a long-held ambition and began officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. She says she quickly learned to become “hyper-vigilant” because of harassment, objectification and “a sexualised undercurrent”. However, that also came with male camaraderie, respect and friendship. “People live together and they work together, and there is also rank. There are so many layers of complexity. It’s exhausting.”

Four years ago, while a troop commander, after a night at a ball during which she had been on her customary guard, she was sexually assaulted with penetration by a fellow officer, witnessed by a colleague. “I didn’t report it: it seemed unfathomable to do so. I was overwhelmed by the assault, the implications of what would happen to the regiment and because I had trusted these people. I quietly disassociated from my body. I just wanted to get on with my career and my life without everything blowing up.”

Earlier this year, having reached the rank of captain, Alice, 28, reluctantly resigned her commission. Highly capable, eloquent and instilled with the army’s values, she had found herself blocked, trying to address reports of sexual harassment while serving under a squadron commander who was also the regimental diversity and inclusion lead, responsible for upholding a range of new “zero tolerance” policies. He had made no secret of his sexist views. He told Alice, for example, that he had decided not to delete the misogynistic memes he had online because that would be “a step too far”.

“I was trying to survive with my own trauma while my role was also to care for the women for whom I was responsible. I was both the recipient of the problem and also a solution for those in the ranks below me. Being a service person was fantastic but being a service woman is hard. I’m incredibly hurt by what happened but I also see so much good in the military. I just want it to be better.”

This December sees the second anniversary of the government’s response to the most extensive parliamentary inquiry into the lives of women in the armed forces: the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. More than 4,000 serving female personnel, regulars, reservists, and veterans, released from a gagging order, gave evidence to the House of Commons defence subcommittee chaired by former soldier and Conservative MP Sarah Atherton.

Evidence was heard of rampant misogyny, bullying, harassment, discrimination and criminal behaviour, including gang rape, sexual assault, male soldiers ejaculating into the pockets of female personnel and sex for favours, much of it unreported for fear of retribution and loss of a career. As disturbing were references to the abuse of power inherent in the rank system by commanding officers who are responsible for in-service “law and order” and setting standards of leadership.

I was overwhelmed by the assault, the implications of what would happen to the regiment and because I had trusted these people. I quietly disassociated from my body

Alice, former army officer

“If you’re assaulted in civilian life, that’s awful,” says Dr Harriet Gray, who has researched sexual violence in the armed forces. “But if you are assaulted in the military and you can’t then get away from your perpetrator because you live on the same base, and you fear making a complaint, it might be that your only option is to leave your career, your friends, your home and your life. The fallout can be catastrophic.”

The 2021 report, Protecting those who protect us: Women in the armed forces from recruitment to civilian life, acknowledged that the armed forces had “changed enormously” in the past three decades. However, the report’s 35 recommendations – all but a few accepted by government – reveal the scale of the challenge.

The Observer has spent several weeks talking to serving personnel, veterans, campaigners, lawyers, academics, parliamentarians and women’s organisations as well as Diane Allen, a retired army lieutenant-colonel who, in 2020, triggered the #MilitaryMeToo movement that contributed to the parliamentary inquiry, to find out if defence is capable of changing so fundamentally – and what the cost will be if it fails.

Only 24 women held senior officer positions in the entire armed forces in 2021. Lt Gen Sharon Nesmith, the most senior woman in the army, says the services are experiencing a “catalytic” period that has “changed the discussion, the conversation and the awareness”. A number of middle-ranking personnel are driving diversity and inclusion (D&I) but resistance is strong. One study of “the lived experience” of women and ethnic minorities in the forces in 2020 reported: “Military white males believed that scarce resources were being diverted into D&I initiatives that were not warranted … Sexualised culture is seen as crucial for recruitment, motivation to fight, banter to maintain morale and unit bonding … denigration of women is sometimes the glue.”

Last month, MoD minister Andrew Murrison insisted reforms were working following “frenetic activity” . “ Ten years ago, you’d never get senior people talking about menstruation and bras,” he said. “These days its common parlance …Life for women in the armed forces has got better and significantly so.”

Reform is undoubtedly under way, in some cases at breakneck speed. This includes improved childcare, (currently while 90% of male veterans have children, that applies to only 10% of females), career flexibility and better equipment. A new Victim Witness Care Unit operates and there are workshops, apps, helplines, mandatory bystander training (intervening when witnessing abuse), mentoring schemes, focus groups, surveys, as well as the latest Army recruitment campaign, “You Belong Here”. Yet, still, the scandals keep coming.

In May, tri-service medical whistleblowers documented continuing widespread sexual abuse; in October came an exposé of the RAF Red Arrows; and, last month, a leaked letter from 60 female civil servants at the MoD complained of “toxic” and “hostile” behaviour. Last week, a Royal Navy sailor who slapped the bottom of a junior colleague and tried to indecently assault her while “heavily intoxicated”, becoming aggressive with male colleagues, was sentenced to an 18-month community service order. The victim revealed she had needed counselling and it had “played a part in her decision to leave the navy”.

The MoD rightly says initiatives are nascent and need time to bed down. Twenty thousand women serve in the armed forces and there are 235,000 female veterans. The goal is to boost female recruitment from 11.7% to 30% by 2030. On the present trajectory, that target won’t be hit until 2060. The reasons why women leave are obviously varied, but a recurring major element appears to be the misogyny, overt and “under the skin”, of the military. “On paper, it’s an equal and very fair employer,” one veteran said. “It falls down on the cultural aspects.”

Laura joined the Army as a private aged 17. She was medically discharged this year, having risen to the rank of captain, suffering from post-traumatic stress and a severe mental breakdown after nearly 20 years’ service. “From a young age I wanted to give something back and serve my country,” she says. “I didn’t leave in the way I’d envisaged.”

The sexual harassment and assaults began in training and continued. “My section commander was an absolute fiend, touching my body, touching my clothes.” Laura’s nickname was “Dolly”, as in Parton. “I was small with a large chest. I was only a kid. It was confusing, exploitative, dangerous. I told myself the men’s behaviour was my fault. It’s a man’s world. It was a hunting ground.”

In one posting, Laura’s sergeant major regularly came into her workshop and exposed himself, rubbing himself against her. Again, when she was at Sandhurst, teaching officer cadets, her senior sergeant major, drunk, tried repeatedly to enter her room, shouting, “She’s up for it!”. “Several guys heard him but did nothing and the next day nothing was said. I thought they were my friends. You’re supposed to be prepared to lay down your life for one another.”

In one camp, male junior ranks refused to salute her or to speak to her, a breach of military discipline. “I wasn’t giving up, it took me a long time to get to where I was.” Thirteen out of 15 women under her command came to her with allegations of bullying and sexual offences. “I sounded the alarm, as was my duty. This was happening to my team. I wanted to be constructive, to find a solution.”

Laura says her commanding officer paid lip service to zero tolerance. “He put the females in my battalion at risk by not addressing the harassers.” Laura found herself ostracised and bullied by her fellow officers. “There’s nothing for you f… here,” one told her. “You’re not one of us.” Her mental health suffered and she developed suicidal thoughts. “I walked away, so broken. I never thought I’d be hiding in my bed barely able to function. I had dreams of retiring when I was ready, with earned respect and thanks. Instead, I have the shame of sliding out of the back door.”

Too many women whose skills are much needed are paying a triple penalty, internalising what they see as the shame of silently enduring misogyny, subsequently suffering poor mental health and, finally, forfeiting their military careers.

This is not news to the MoD. At least seven inquiries into misogynistic and discriminatory behaviour in the forces have been conducted over the years. The MoD knows the nature of the problem well. In 2009, for instance, an inquiry commissioned by the army chief of the general staff described how men at the top were “unseeing” of the need for change and how those in the middle were resistant, while in the junior ranks, there was confusion about what was expected. “Diversity is often being proclaimed rather than felt or experienced,” the report said.

Fourteen years later, a number of the women the Observer interviewed used similar words even as some spoke with pride about serving in the armed forces.

A 2020 review said misogyny and “blatant discrimination” had become subtler, replaced with behaviours such as “being ignored, excluded, overlooked, questioned, micromanaged and not cooperated with” by “a white male prototype… characterised by alpha male traits.” In 2023, some female personnel told me that, in spite of zero tolerance, they believed bullying and sexual violence has ramped up, possibly as part of a backlash. So how is that being addressed?

Recently, the drive for D&I has grown some muscle. In April 2021, the tri-service Conduct, Equity and Justice Directorate was established. A small team of around 40 is implementing and reviewing initiatives from a staggering 400-500 recommendations accepted by government over the years, affecting the three services and civilian staff – over 185,000 personnel.

It’s a huge job that urgently requires far more resources. Eight hundred trained D&I advisers, one in every unit, offer “impartial advice” on inappropriate behaviour, while D&I practitioners are the “eyes and ears” on the ground, promoting inclusion and challenging behaviour. Both perform these tough duties in a sometimes hostile climate in addition to their day jobs. A “climate assessment” is also made of a range of issues at least once during a commanding officer’s two-year posting in a unit. In addition, following the Atherton report, complaints about inappropriate behaviour are no longer considered by the chain of command.

Women told the inquiry about the “broken” complaints system. “They waste time until you run out of energy,” says Laura, whose complaint took a year. “They lied for each other, reports went missing, it was complete tosh.” Officers she made complaints against were subsequently promoted.

Serving personnel and veterans told the inquiry about intimidation, obstruction of witnesses, evidence lost “to save the unit’s reputation” and being “career-fouled” and sidelined. In the name of operational efficiency and “the needs of the badge”, a CO could decide that an alleged perpetrator was too valuable to the unit to punish, erasing a complainant’s right to justice.

“The MoD constantly refers to ‘a few bad apples’,” says lawyer Ahmed Al-Nahhas, who has handled military claims for over 15 years. “That’s garbage. It’s systemic and [the MoD] knows it. Some younger officers want to do the right thing but they don’t get plaudits for resolving a complaint that is viewed as creating more work … especially when the chain of command is implicated in the bad behaviour.”

The armed forces attract young men who see it as a place where they can enjoy a boys’ club

Professor Victoria Basham, academic researcher

Professor Victoria Basham has researched military culture for 20 years. “It’s a common strategy for the armed forces to settle things in different ways because then it becomes much harder to create a systematic overview of what’s really going wrong,” she says. “It’s not just men of a certain age, there’s a problem with young dinosaurs, too.

“The armed forces attract young men who see it as a place where they can enjoy a boys’ club. There’s an issue here and it’s not going away.”

Critics say two of the Atherton recommendations rejected by government – as they have been several times before – are crucial to opening up the armed forces to genuine change. Without them, the entire endeavour risks jeopardy. One is that murder, manslaughter, domestic and child abuse and sexual offences should be investigated and prosecuted in civilian life, not by the Service Justice System (SJS), unless the attorney general says otherwise.

Emma Norton, of the charity the Centre for Military Justice, has worked with the families of two of the three young serving female soldiers who died in the past 12 years. Anne-Marie Ellement took her own life in 2011. Jaysley-Louise Beck died in 2021 – an inquest will be held next year. The third, Olivia Perks, died in 2019. Beck’s earlier allegation of sexual assault had not been properly investigated and, later, her line manager had sexually harassed her, sending almost 5,000 WhatsApps and voice messages.

Norton points to the low conviction rates in the SJS, inaccurate recording of sexual offences and failures in investigation because of the inexperience of the armed forces police.

A year ago, as a corrective to inadequate investigations into sexual offences, the Defence Serious Crime Unit was established with a small staff of trained investigators working across the services.

In 2022, in the criminal justice system, 4% of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a charge or summons, whereas in the SJS, it was 23% – both dire. However, between 2019 and 2021, only 11 out of 53 charges of rape heard at court martial led to guilty findings. An alleged rapist is far more likely to be acquitted at a court martial now, with women included on the boards (juries).

“While there are massive problems in dealing with sexual offences, including rape in the civil system, a huge amount of work is going on to address these, involving the women’s sector and drawing on decades of victim support,” Norton says. “Women in the armed forces must be able to benefit from those reforms. There’s nothing about rape in the military that requires military expertise to investigate and prosecute it.”

The second rejected recommendation is for the creation of an independent defence authority to permit external scrutiny of the forces and increase accountability.

Luke Pollard, the shadow armed forces minister, says that if Labour wins the forthcoming election, serious cases in the armed forces will be tried in the civilian courts and the government would legislate to establish an armed forces commissioner, “a strong and independent voice” with power to launch investigations, handle complaints and report to parliament.

“Gunner Beck, in the official inquiry, was called a troubled young woman, but isn’t it OK to be that and not to have to die?” Alice asks. “In the armed forces, if you’re a woman, there’s no scope for human error or fallibility. You have to have your head screwed on 100% … while your male peers are accepted as a ‘work in progress’.”

I walked away, so broken. I never thought I’d be hiding in my bed barely able to function

Laura, former army officer

So, what lies ahead? Many interviewed said Atherton’s tenacious, untiring efforts have been vital for women in the armed forces and veterans. What better candidate for the first armed forces commissioner?

“You need leadership at all levels,” says Dr Lauren Godier-McBard, co-director of the Centre for Military Women’s Research. “People have to be taught throughout their careers how to understand and treat others of different ethnicities and gender. Women need to be seen in senior roles and service women need to be consulted regularly to see if change is happening. It’s going to take a long time.”

Gray says: “Zero tolerance polices are welcome but there’s always a danger that it’s a shiny plaster on a massively gaping wound. It pushes towards a space where defence can say, ‘Look, on paper, everything’s fixed now, off we go’ without making the real [changes] required.”

Another imperative, however, may massively accelerate reform. Boots on the ground, hand-to-hand combat, continue to be a factor , as Ukraine has demonstrated. However, today’s battlefield is also about different strategic thinking, AI and new technology. It requires militarism dependent on diversity and inclusion, not the “groupthink” that was a major weakness, for instance, in Iraq.

“Diversity and inclusion is not about what defence wants to look like,” Vice-Admiral Philip Hally has said. “But what defence needs to look like.”Yet, in June, an MoD-commissioned report said there was “a bunker mentality in which change is equated with threat rather than opportunity … Critical capability failure may arise not because of what the armed forces are trying to change but how it’s being done.”