Managing Sex in the U.S. Military

Endorsed by the Society for Military History

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Military; Sexuality


The U.S. military is a massive institution, and its policies on sex, gender, and sexuality have shaped the experiences of tens of millions of Americans, sometimes in life-altering fashion. Currently, as an institution, the U.S. military is struggling with a massive and intractable epidemic of sexual assault; it is whipsawed between (externally mandated) requirements to allow and then to ban transgendered servicemembers; it is analyzing the (again, externally-mandated) end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT); it is attempting to deal with the impact of extended war on servicemembers’ families, and it is beginning to allow women to serve in the combat arms. Each of these is a critical issue to the military, but also ties to ongoing questions about sex, gender, and sexuality in American society and to broader issues of civil-military relations. These contemporary issues tie to a longer history within the military and to a broader historical context.

This panel brings together three historians to offer different perspectives on the broad question: “How has the U.S. military attempted to manage sex?” In answering this question, the panel will demonstrate how the social construction of sexuality and gender has shifted in keeping with broader changes in American society, even as prior definitions (buttressed by institutional culture) continue to shape contemporary policies and debates.

Prof. Worsencroft’s paper will examine the ways the military utilized families to bolster its public image and meet personnel needs in the wake of the beginnings of the All-Volunteer Force. As the armed services realized that “family men” offered greater stability and committed fewer transgressions than single men, they enacted policies encouraging or supporting marriage and allowed married—and pregnant—women to serve.

Prof. Wilson-Buford will examine the military’s beleaguered attempts to manage sexual violence, while drawing connections between policies and related assumptions about soldier masculinity, sexuality, race, and gender. These policies and assumptions tell us much about the ways the U.S. military has attempted to manage sex within the ranks and between servicemembers and peoples of other nations.

Prof. Hamner will bring our discussion to the present-day, where discussions about the opening of combat roles illustrate persistent questions about the ways the military regulates gender and sexuality. His paper will examine the ways various groups—including military commanders, officers, and enlisted personnel, as well as the public—have responded to these developments.

Despite the far-reaching significance of the military’s policies on sex and sexual identity, scholars have not come together to analyze such policies or their unintended consequences and lasting implications. This panel argues that such understandings are critical to the military, as it searches for solutions to address complex policy issues that at their core involve intractable issues related to sex, gender, and sexuality in the contemporary United States and its recent past. Such understandings are also critical to the history of the United States, for military policies regarding sex both reflect and affect not only larger social and cultural patterns but help to shape individual experience and national policies as well.

Papers Presented

“We Recruit Individuals but Retain Families”: Managing Marriage and Family in the All-Volunteer Force

As the United States transitioned to an all-volunteer military in the 1970s, the need to retain qualified servicemembers beyond their initial enlistments became an existential priority because the services could no longer rely on a draft to fill the enlisted ranks. Servicemembers and their families began to expect—and demand— that military life become more family friendly. But, as the percentage of married servicemembers grew from 40 to 60 percent, everyday family concerns—sick kids, financial problems, domestic disputes and spousal abuse, child care— began to interfere with everyday military life—training, deployments, maneuvers—with more frequency. This story illustrates the significant overlap between military institutions, civilian and military lobbying organizations, and civil rights groups, illuminating the many ways that domestic politics and changing national values shaped how the military managed sexuality and gender. As younger Americans, who grew up in the civil rights era and witnessed a growing national women’s movement, started entering the military, policy makers increasingly confronted activist women (both civilian wives and women in uniform) who were willing to organize, petition, and advocate for the growing needs of their families in an era of economic uncertainty. National women’s groups and their allies in Congress also saw the military as a site for pursuing the aspirational goals of feminism to secure women’s equality and full citizenship. These groups fought to dismantle barriers to women’s full participation in the military and advocated for services such as child care and career services to balance the competing demands of work and family.

Presented By
John Worsencroft, Louisiana Tech University

Brothers in Arms? Combat, Masculinity, and Change in the 21st-Century American Military

Combat and masculinity have been deeply intertwined in American history. The belief that battle represents a space and an activity that is the exclusive province of men goes back centuries. That largely unexamined assumption is ever-present in American military history, sometimes implicit but very often explicit. There is simply no profession in America so thoroughly identified with maleness as soldiering, and battle—the defining activity of the soldier—is a space suffused with masculinity. Men make war, and war makes men. There is another set of equally pervasive, and similarly unexamined, assumptions about soldiers’ ability and willingness to fight. Scholars have frequently depicted combat motivation as inextricably tied to masculine identity: male honor, male shame, and the particular kind of male bonding in combat units termed “social cohesion” have been used at various points in the last half-century to explain the willingness of soldiers to face enemy fire. Of course, the belief that battle is solely the preserve of men does not hold up well against the empirical data in the historical record. Assumptions about combat as a purely masculine activity have increasingly come into question in the past quarter-century, a debate that took a sharp new turn in late 2015 when then–secretary of defense Ash Carter announced that the U.S. military would begin the process of opening all combat jobs to women. This paper explores the current state of the discourse surrounding women in combat roles, with special attention to the ways that different groups—military brass, civilian leaders and pundits, active-duty soldiers and officers, and combat veterans—have responded to, challenged, and shaped the debates about masculinity and masculine identity on the battlefield.

Presented By
Christopher H. Hamner, George Mason University

Problematic Policies & Far-Reaching Consequences: Historicizing Sexual Violence in the American Military

Policing sexual violence has been a central component of the U.S. military’s efforts to manage service members’ sexualities—and the American military’s national and global reputation—since World War I. Long before rape and sexual assault became a national and international policy issue in the wake of the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, military officials struggled to define “sexual assault” and implement policies to prevent it. In fact, the scarcity of official service policies on sexual assault during the Cold War suggest that military leaders did not view sexual assault as an institutional problem in need of sustained and systematic intervention. To the contrary, leaders assumed that sexual violence was a natural consequence of military service, especially in remote locations and war zones. Consequently, official policies implemented before the turn of the century were often reactive and situational, rather than preventative and systematically implemented. Although the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adopted in 1950, provided uniform definitions of “sexual assault” that were applicable to all service branches, legal officials’ varying interpretations of what constituted Article 120 and 125 violations at courts-martial undermined efforts to streamline the prosecution of perpetrators. Mapping the military’s historic policies and practices related to sexual violence is critical for contextualizing current policy debates and offering effective solutions. Though the challenges researchers will face given the sensitive nature of the subject and the paucity of sources are daunting, this work has far-reaching implications for improving social justice and the future of military efforts to manage sexual violence.

Presented By
Kellie Wilson Buford, Arkansas State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kara Dixon Vuic, Texas Christian University
Kara Dixon Vuic is the LCpl. Benjamin W. Schmidt Professor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University. She is the author of The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Harvard University Press, 2019). Her first book, Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), won the Lavinia L. Dock Book Award from the American Association for the History of Nursing, was named a Book of the Year in History and Public Policy by the American Journal of Nursing, and was a finalist for the Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award. She also edited The Routledge Handbook on Gender, War, and the U.S. Military (2017) and is co-editor (with Richard Fogarty) of the University of Nebraska Press’s book series “Studies in War, Society, and the Military.” Additionally, she has published articles and essays in At War: Militarism and U.S. Culture in the 20th Century and Beyond, Integrating the U.S. Military: African Americans, Women, and Gays since World War II, Signs, Gender and Conflict since 1914, and Nursing History Review, among others. Vuic has won grants and fellowships from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Schlesinger Library, American Historical Association, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Military History Institute, and Center for Military History.

Presenter: Kellie Wilson Buford, Arkansas State University
Kellie Wilson-Buford is an Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Secondary Social Studies Education program at Arkansas State University. In addition to teaching history education courses and supervising teaching interns, she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the twentieth century world, women, gender, sexuality and war, comparative empires, genocide, US foreign relations, American legal history, and marriage and state surveillance. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2014, her MA in History from University of North Carolina-Greensboro in 2006 and her BA in History and Social Studies Education from North Carolina State University in 2004. Her publications have been featured in the Journal of Homosexuality and Military History of the West among other journals and edited volumes. Her book, Policing Sex and Marriage in the American Military: The Court-Martial and the Construction of Gender and Sexual Deviance, 1950-2000 was published by University of Nebraska Press in 2018 as part of the Studies in War, Society, and the Military series. Her current book project, tentatively entitled Shattering the Silence: Sexual Violence and American Military Justice from the Korean War to the Present, traces military courts’ efforts to manage service members’ crimes of sexual violence since 1950.

Presenter: Christopher H. Hamner, George Mason University
Christopher Hamner is an associate professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, specializing in the social history of American soldiers. An honors graduate of Dartmouth College, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. His 2011 book Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars 1776-1945 examines the experiences of American infantry soldiers under fire in the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the Second World War, analyzing the ways that individuals and small groups were motivated to face the terror and chaos of battle as technologies changed the experience of fighting on the ground. He is currently at work on two projects. The first, tentatively titled The Weight of War: American Soldiers in Post-Industrial Combat from Vietnam to Iraq, picks up some of the themes of soldiers’ experiences on the ground, examining the changing nature of battle from the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War to the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing on the ways that the experience of combat changed on the increasingly asymmetrical, irregular battlefield. A second project, The Shoals of Defeat: Abraham Lincoln, Union Strategy, and the 1864 Overland Campaign, explores the connections between politics, popular will, and strategy during the two brutal months of fighting that characterized the Union's Virginia campaign in May and June of 1864.

Hamner has been a fellow at the Center for Military History and at Harvard University’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. From 2014 to 2016 he was a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College, teaching courses on military strategy, planning, and operations.

Presenter: John Worsencroft, Louisiana Tech University
John Worsencroft is a visiting assistant professor of history and a research fellow at Louisiana Tech University. He earned his PhD in United States history from Temple University, and as a scholar he researches and writes about twentieth century America through the interlocking themes of policy, gender, war, the military, and society. His book project, “A Family Affair: Military Service in America,” is a history of family policies in the Army and Marine Corps, exploring how military institutions and policies shape rights, obligations, and the meaning of citizenship in the United States. Before pursuing graduate studies, he was a U.S. Marine and fought in Iraq in 2003.