The Bureaucratic Harassment of U.S. Servicewomen

By Stephanie Bonnes

Earlier this year, a closed Facebook group called “Marines United” was revealed to be a place where 30,000 military men shared nude photos of servicewomen without their consent. Sound familiar? This incident is only the most recent in a long string of military sexual abuse scandals (the Air Force, Army, and the Navy have also been implicated in the negative treatment of servicewomen). Over the years, many policy recommendations have been developed on how the military as an organization should address these issues. However, my research shows that it is also important to recognize the role of individuals who interpret, carry out, and implement organizational rules, policies, and regulations.

The culture of the U.S military promotes an aggressive, warrior identity and its command structure reflects standards of white, hetero-normative masculinity. White men comprise the vast majority of officer positions. Within the military hierarchy, service-members who are in positions of power are tasked with interpreting and implementing various rules, often based on their own discretion. This power and authority can be manipulated and exploited to cause harm.

While nearly all of the 33 servicewomen I interviewed for my study experienced some form of sexual harassment, many of their accounts focus on the bureaucratic dimension of their harassment: the precise ways that servicemen (commanders or peers) implemented rules and procedures in order to disrupt their ability to engage in the military workforce and damage their military careers.


            For example, a white enlisted Marine recounted her attempt to report an instance of sexual harassment she experienced. She was told by her commander that, if forced to investigate, they would cancel her Christmas leave. She said, “It was clear that this was a threat. I was asked, ‘Do [you] really want to ruin this man’s career? If we have to go forward, we will have to cancel your leave.’” After suffering sexual harassment, she grew so anxious at the thought of not being able to go home that she dropped the report.


In another case, a Latina Captain in the Army recalled how a fellow Captain tried to undermine a decision she made regarding one of her soldiers. She says “So, my senior enlisted guy requested leave, I approve it….so, I forward it to the Captain [who tracks personnel happenings in the unit] and this motherfucker denied it. He has no authority to do that. So, I fight him on it, fight for my enlisted guy’s leave. So, he turns around and gives me a “counseling statement.” It said I was disrespecting a superior officer. He is the same rank as me … And he says my attitude is detrimental to unit morale and he has no other option but to recommend a dishonorable discharge.” This same captain repeatedly issued administrative sanctions for small and non-existent “infractions” to try to portray her as poor service-member to their commander.

These are two examples of “bureaucratic harassment,” a concept I identify as a specific sub-type of workplace harassment where bureaucracy is both the tool that perpetrators use to harass, as well as their source of power over others in the organization. By threatening to take away earned leave, the enlisted Marine’s commander manipulated his power to grant leave in order to restrict her from reporting sexual harassment. By building a paper trail of petty infractions and complaints, the Army officer’s colleague attempted to exploit his social power (as a white male over a Latina) through the bureaucratic system.


Organizational features such as high levels of discretion in approving leave and promotions, assigning daily work activities, and conducting employee evaluations allow for individuals to cause harm through official administrative channels. Many servicewomen perceive this treatment as legitimate since it occurs through official military organizational channels. They do not report it, they spend a lot of time responding to and fighting infractions levied against them because of it, and often they end up leaving the military as a result of it. Servicewomen who are prevented from reporting experiences with sexual abuse may be forced to stay in a unit with the perpetrator. Having a negative record of service can prevent servicewomen from accessing promotions and opportunities and can result in lost post-service medical and educational benefits. By identifying the unique tactics that servicemen use to harass through bureaucratic systems, the organizational features that facilitate bureaucratic harassment, and the unique forms of harm it causes to servicewomen, my research aims to make these processes visible so that they can be recognized and prevented in the future.

Stephanie Bonnes is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research broadly focuses on gender and race at the intersections of victimization, inequality, crime, and organizations. Her dissertation explores the experiences of women in the United States Military including, but not limited to, servicewomen’s experiences with sexual abuse.


Queering Romance

By Ellen Lamont

For the last couple of decades, debates over same-sex marriage dominated the national political conversation on gay rights. Slogans such as “love is love” and other mainstream narratives proclaimed the right to wedded bliss for same-sex couples, and movement leaders worked to normalize certain LGBTQ relationships by emphasizing their similarity to straight couples. Yet not all LGBTQ individuals were on board, and many asserted that liberation was not about gaining access to a government sanctioned institution or mimicking the practices of heterosexual couples. Instead, they argued, the appeal of queer life was in making life choices, and defining relationships, on one’s own terms. Only in doing so could one radically transform the sexist, heteronormative practices that structure romantic relationships.


            Normative dating and courtship practices are widely accepted in the U.S. because they reliably communicate interest and facilitate relationship progression. Men are expected to ask for, plan, and pay for dates, progress the relationship, and propose marriage, while women are expected to simply react. Given that these norms are predicated on assumptions of heterosexuality and are deeply gendered, I wondered how queer individuals navigated the early stages of romantic relationships, a time when people are more likely to fall back on well-established practices as a way to deal with uncertainty. In order to explore this question, I interviewed 40 LGBTQ-identified young adults in the San Francisco Bay Area about their dating practices. Given their young ages, geographic location, and extensive contact with queer community organizations and friend networks, my respondents were well-situated to remake romance outside of the standard Hollywood script.

            Contrary to the voices of liberation through assimilation, my findings show that some LGBTQ-identified individuals – particularly those in more radical, politicized queer spaces – reject the presumption that they should mimic heterosexual relationship practices, which they saw as constraining, unimaginative, and heavily gendered. Instead, respondents argued for dating practices built on reciprocity.


They emphasized how both partners (or more, if in polyamorous relationships) should ask and pay for dates, communicate interest, and facilitate relationship progression. In addition, they aimed to construct relationships free from societal constraints and instead based on the individual needs of each partner. They viewed this approach as more honest than those that draw on cookie cutter assumptions about what people want and need in their relationships.

            This approach spilled over into their committed relationships, as respondents emphasized egalitarian, flexible, and non-gendered care work. They sought to engage in high levels of communication and negotiation so that each person’s individual, and often changing, needs would be consistently honored. Thus, my findings show how a deliberate rethinking of dating and courtship practices may set the stage for people to do the same in their long-term relationships, indicating that changing how people date may be important to building more equal, and less gendered, relationships.

            But while my respondents emphasized their desire to “write the scripts themselves” based on individual needs and wants, they faced emergent community-level norms that restricted the range of “acceptable” relationship practices. Given the queer community’s focus on resisting gendered and heteronormative practices, the people I spoke with discussed anywhere from mild to heavy pressure to avoid these practices in their own relationships. As a result, people worked hard to be appropriately radical and resist falling back on normative conventions. Those who fell back on heteronormative practices were either shamed or compelled to create narratives in which their adherence to such practices was explained away in order to undermine potential critiques. While my findings show the potential embedded in building relationships based on the expressed needs and desires of each partner rather than on default expectations, they also demonstrate that queer people struggle with the paradox that liberation can itself become a constraining norm, as the pressure to contest societal level norms translates into a pressure to always be radical.


Ellen Lamont is an assistant professor  of sociology at the Appalachian State University. Her research examines how gender and sexuality shape young adults’ hookup, dating, and courtship practices.




The Potency of Discursive Aggression in Trans Peoples’ Lives.

By stef shuster

Walking into a restaurant in downtown Metromidwest, Charlie orders a half sandwich/half soup to go. Upon placing their order, the person working the cash register looks up, smiles, and says, “Thank you Ma’am. Have a good day. Your order will be ready shortly.” Charlie levels their gaze, mumbles that they are not a lady, and continues to the waiting area for their lunch order to be called. Returning to work, Charlie sees several co-workers congregated around the conference room. One calls out, “Hey man. We were just talking about going out after work. Do you want to join in?” Charlie quietly sighs, and agrees to go out with their co-workers after work. They continue reflecting on the everyday challenges experienced in social life as a 25-year-old White genderqueer person, “I just don’t know what to say. They are my co-workers. Good people. And this is the first job that I have really liked, I don’t want to offend anyone or risk getting fired. I’ve tried before to correct them when they mis-gender me, but they just don’t get it.” Charlie shares that while these moments in interaction are common, they are difficult to negotiate, “I just expect it at this point. You know? Like – strangers don’t know that there people like me who do not identify as women or men. And my co-workers are trying to do the best they can.”

             These moments described by Charlie show us how many trans-identified people confront the limitations of language in everyday life. In my recently published piece in the August issue of Gender & Society, I examine the narratives of 40 trans people and focus on how language and talk uphold social order and regulate gender in interaction. I introduce “discursive aggression” as a term to describe how communicative acts are used in interaction to hold people accountable to social and cultural-based expectations (i.e., other-enforcement), and how individuals hold themselves accountable in anticipating the unfolding of interactions (i.e., self-enforcement). Through talk, discursive aggression regulates trans people in everyday social settings (like when Charlie is referred to as “ma’am”) and produces for them the feeling that they are not received in the ways they wish to be known, that they are made invisible, and that their self-authorship in naming and claiming a gender identity is questioned (such as when Charlie’s co-workers refer to them as “man”). Because language and talk are pervasive features of everyday life, indeed the building blocks for how individuals make sense of our selves and each other, there are limited options to respond to discursive aggression in the day-to-day interactions we have with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family.

Casual team meeting in open office discussing business
Person stands discussing business with team sitting holding documents & mugs in casual meeting in open office

  My work shows how trans people anticipate negative consequences for responding to discursive aggression. In being aware of others’ expectations for how interactions should unfold, trans people may engage in self-silencing to uphold the social order. That moment described by Charlie in seeing their co-workers and not wanting to risk correcting them out of fears of being fired, demonstrates how potent discursive aggression can be and translates to Charlie engaging in self-silencing out of fears of negative consequences they may experience by even the most well-meaning people. This particular dimension of accountability processes further shows us how power inequities play out in interaction, and how subordinated groups put in significant work to help others “save face” by not correcting mistakes, prioritize the needs of family members and friends over their own needs, and are boxed in by restrictive cultural expectations. Moving forward, scholars might consider other intersecting identities, and interactional dynamics to sort through the contexts that set the stage for people using discursive aggression–intentionally or unintentionally–to maintain their privilege in ways previously overlooked in existing scholarship and to document how power is inflected through talk and used to uphold cultural expectations and norms in interaction.

stef shuster is an assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University. Their research examines the social construction of “evidence” in three domains including medicine, social movements, and in the construction of knowledge. Their work has recently appeared in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and Social Psychology Quarterly.

Mountain Gorillas Teach a Lesson about Gendered Behavior

By Nathan H. Lents and Stacy Rosenbaum

[A longer version of this post can be found here.]

The mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in Rwanda have been under continuous intense scientific scrutiny since George Schaller and Dian Fossey began their pioneering work in the 1950s. Fossey was the subject of the Oscar-nominated biopic Gorillas in the Mist.

Dian Fossey observing Mountain Gorillas Image Source: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Male gorillas are more than twice as large as females, underscoring their evolutionary legacy of male contest competition and polygyny. Indeed, gorillas were long thought to exist almost exclusively in harems, small multi-female groups led by one powerful silverback. Upon reaching adulthood, young males typically leave their birth group and go through a solitary period before attempting to take over a harem or start a group of their own. Most are not successful.

Beginning in the 1990s, some younger males stopped leaving their groups. Scientists began observing very large groups including several adult males and females living together in relative harmony. Some groups hosted up to nine adult males, and one group topped out at 66 total animals. Twenty years in, this trend shows no sign of reversing and currently involves one-fourth of the mountain gorilla population at Virunga.

A Mountain Gorilla community in Virunga National Park Photo Credit: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
A Mountain Gorilla community in Virunga National Park
Photo Credit: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

This raises very pointed questions for the field of evolutionary psychology. Central to evolutionary psychological theory is the notion that behaviors are the product of natural selective forces that reward reproductive success. Many controversial corollaries have sprung from that seemingly straightforward claim, including that some behavioral distinctions between men and women might be the result of innate, naturally selected differences. Intangible phenomena like professional ambition, competitive tendencies, and desire for a rewarding family life, along with more concrete cognitive abilities such as spatial and quantitative reasoning, are sometimes invoked in the otherwise thoughtful conversations about why we don’t see more female astrophysicists on the Harvard faculty. Continue reading “Mountain Gorillas Teach a Lesson about Gendered Behavior”