Apr 6, 2011

The dark side of mateship in Australian military ranks

Gender equity interventions alone cannot penetrate the hermetically sealed, and bullet-proof culture of group solidarity that soldiers are socialised into at training, writes sociologist and former military man Dr Ben Wadham.

If you are interested in tales of sexual predation, the Australian Defence Force isn’t disappointing you at the moment. In February the report into the culture of the HMAS Success was released. Defence Minister Stephen Smith explained modestly that it did not make good reading. It told tales of the high seas and a man’s culture of sexually predatory behavior, habitual binge drinking and bullying and intimidation of female personnel. All in all an unsafe climate for women, isn’t it? Just yesterday a new story of sexual misconduct surfaced, this time from the elite military training institution, the Australian Defence Force Academy. A male ADFA cadet has allegedly filmed himself having sex with a female cadet and broadcast it to his male mates in an adjacent room. We must ask the question: why? What do a group of young male ADFA cadets gain from this nefarious plot? The 18-year-old female RAAF cadet was clearly traumatised. She spoke of her sense of betrayal and an overwhelming nausea when she found out from an ADFIS investigator. She is now concerned that she is tainted, that her career is determined by a case of perverse male behaviour. These incidents are not new. In 1992, the s-x scandal aboard the HMAS Swan launched a Senate inquiry into sexual harassment in the services. Sexual harassment at Duntroon in the 1990s instigated a report into sexual misconduct at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Other incidents mark the reputation of the Australian Defence Force, too. Inquiries into gang rape, or the cases of women officers such as Robyn Fahey or Kelly Wiggins, tell of persistent practices of sexual depravity. The ADF is seeking to increase women among its ranks. It does take such incidents very seriously. There is a zero-tolerance policy, the establishment of the Defence Equity Organisation in 1997 and a current gender equity education program being developed online. So what is wrong? At least one failure is the blindness of the Defence command. Gender equity interventions alone cannot penetrate the hermetically sealed, and bullet-proof culture of group solidarity that soldiers are socialised into at training. These kinds of indiscretions are most prolific when that logic of group identity is most intense. It is most intense in training establishments and arms corps, or closed shops such as navy ships. This culture is established around men and their ideas of manhood. Warfare is almost an exclusively male enterprise. The ADF is a predominantly male domain. When men seek to close ranks they exclude others and they use language and practices that marginalise, and subordinate those others. Perverse sexuality, racist terms, bullying and intimidation consolidate the boundary between a group of mates and "the enemy". Binge drinking and sharing sexual adventures intensify the sense of being one. It is the dark side of mateship. We are left with an inherent paradox of militarism. Military personnel, largely men, must work closely together to endure the hardships of combat and warfare. Mateship motivates bravery, courage and sacrifice, the stuff our national legends are built upon. But the flip side is an unrestrained potential for violation, exclusion and hostility that includes sexual predation, excessive alcoholism, racism and intimidation. This is the challenge that is the responsibility of the Australian military command. Personnel will continue to transgress, and stories will continue to draw media and community attention, and the reputation of the ADF will remain sullied until the military command opens its eyes. It is time to acknowledge the foundations of military culture established through the creation of the soldier, seaman or airman in military training. Without a close hard look, women will continue to remain skeptical of serving their nation.

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54 thoughts on “The dark side of mateship in Australian military ranks

  1. Allison

    1. I feel for the young lady concerned and I hope that the ADF ensure that she has all appropriate levels of support and that it does not adversely affect her future;
    2. I am proud of the young man who told his superiors of what was going on;
    3. The grubs that watched and the horrible human being who video taped himself should be disciplined and then thrown out of the ADF; and
    4. I don’t accept that mateship requires this kind of behaviour .. you can achieve solidarity without being a pervert.

  2. kennethrobinson2

    Put a group of fit sexually active people in close contact, and nature will take its course, but their conduct must be a culture of respect.
    I remember the situation in Vietnam 1967, when orders were that Australian diggers weren’t permitted to use brothels, as stated, fit active young men not permitted to engage in sexual conduct, must have came out of the local church ladies tea party.
    Get real.

  3. Had Enough

    The dangers of web-cams!!!

  4. Gareth Perkins


    No one is telling these people to stop having s-x, or even using brothels.

    They’re saying maybe these guys should stop behaving like misogynistic a–holes, stop degrading women colleagues and treat everyone with a bit of respect.

  5. Mort

    It is the same dynamic as football thugs.
    Male bonding based on the degradation of a girl/woman – how much more hetereo alpha male can you get right?!!
    It is the sick side of masculinity. To prove you are a “real man” you have to have contempt /disregard for anything feminine and female. Apparently the official team bonding exercises aren’t working so well if they still have to “prove” after hours that they are so totally NOT GAY.

  6. mikeb

    @mort – I have experienced plenty of male bonding “exercises” and none of it included public sex. Actually apart from the fact that the girl is degraded and an unwitting performer i’d be too worried about being a “flop” to do anything like this .

    Not trying to defend the defence forces, or footy players for that matter, but i wonder if instances of this are any more widespread than your averge uni dorm or hospital campus? I somehow doubt it but it makes for great newspaper banners.

  7. Simon

    This sort of thing just gets me angry and shows how unfit men are for this sort of job.

  8. Angrybudgie

    Got to say completely not surprised, this is not the first time I have heard about/seen such behaviour in a group of young men. This is not strictly a problem of the military, although I have heard of similar types of behaviour at ADFA over many years. Some (not all) seem to think that the women are there for entertainment of the males. The other instances I am aware of were at an average uni dormitory. One group of young men decided that it would be fun to watch another member of their group have sex with his girlfriend. These bright lads didn’t think of using a webcam so they chose a large room, the Senior Common Room, where his mates could all sit down one end and watch. He was all for it, but she had no idea until the lights were turned on and there they were…… really funny. The girl eventually left the university, she could not take the gossip and laughter any more. Another time, we came across a similar male group all having sex with their girlfriends (very drunk, apparently for consent) in the same room at the same time…..so they could watch each other. I did not understand either situation when the lights came on and I do not understand it now. As Mort said, “Male bonding based on the degradation of a girl/woman – how much more hetereo alpha male can you get right?” Mateship is such a wonderful thing sometimes isn’t it??

  9. Mike

    Doc Ben said:

    “Without a close hard look, women will continue to remain skeptical of serving their nation.”

    One can only hope your right – if they can’t handle a bit of boyish mischief, what chance do they have on the battlefield?

  10. thirdborn314

    As one of those young blokes at Duntroon in the 90’s I saw first hand this attitude, and felt myself being dragged into the group think – it was a trap for young fellows. Looking back I can not believe how naive I was, and how close I came to being part of all of this – perhaps I was – who knows how my actions were actually perceived. I remember clearly the authorities coming down hard on a particular aspect of the behaviour, and realising that these guys were serious, some of the things we were doing that we thought were funny were actually sackable offences – I could lose my job. This was what made me sit back and have a think about what was right and wrong – and from that day on I have lived a life with more empathy for all minorities, not just females in the military.

    I think the best action here is rule with an iron fist – that is the hard currency for soldiers. Start sacking people, supervise closely and force behavioural change. Provide an example of strong leadership to teach leadership. When I heard whispers of inappropriate behaviour in the recruit lines when I was a recuit commander I would turn up to work early in the morning – or stay late at night – to make sure in my own mind that all was well. Leaders do the right thing, it’s time to set an example.

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