Representational & Political Intersectionality in Relation to Sexual Assault in the Military

A Unique Experience for Women of Color on Active Duty

While many issues concerning the United States Armed Forced have received extensive media coverage, there is one issue in particular that continually fails to receive the attention it deserves: the culture of sexual harassment in the military against women of color. It is not surprising that this is a prevalent issue that many women of color on active duty continue to face, but what does continue to surprise me is the ways in which the systemic “cover up” of such military crimes is tolerated. The emphasis on women of color is particularly important because it converges different dimensions of discourse and issues that pertain to us specifically: intersectionality, gender, and sexism.

Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality is a concept that shapes our everyday lives and experiences, as well as our perception of the world, and the world’s perception of us as individuals. She identifies two forms of intersectionality that pertain to the issue of sexual harassment in the military: political and structural intersectionality.

As stated by Crenshaw, political intersectionality is a concept that describes the ways in which women of color are placed within at least two subordinate groups of identity that pursue conflicting political ideas. She states:

Because women of color experience racism in ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color, and sexism in ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, dominant conceptions of antiracism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms (Crenshaw 1252).

Societal institutions are not designed to account for intersectionality, and in turn end up dismissing the very ways in which the different dimensions of the identities of women of color create experiences unique to us. Because of this, the institutions that are designed to protect us, view sexism and racism through the lens of black women and black men, but never through the intersecting lens: the lens of women of color. By viewing sexism and racism as two separate entities, these institutions fail to recognize the ways in which these two dimensions intersect for women of color in shaping our experiences. Society’s inability to account for intersectionality does not allow it to provide us with proper agency. This results in the perpetuation of the subordination that we already experience as one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society, leading us to an entirely different dimension of oppression and disempowerment.

In a study titled “Comparing Sexual Harassment Subtypes Among Black and White Women by Military Rank: Double Jeopardy, the Jezebel, and the Cult of True Womanhood” the relationship between race and sexual harassment in the military was examined. The study suggests that the harassment experiences of Black and White women may be dissimilar as a result of differing social perceptions of their work-related gender roles, family-caretaking priorities, sexuality, and femininity” (Buchanan, NiCole T, et al). Furthermore, the study suggests that black women’s “membership in multiple marginalized groups, combined with sexualized stereotypes, may make Black women more prone to experience sexualized forms of sexual harassment at work” (Buchanan, NiCole T, et al).

As described by Crenshaw, the political intersectionality in the identities of women of color in the military places them in more vulnerable positions in relation to white women. Women of color are more likely to experience sexual assault but most importantly, they are less likely to receive proper agency because of society’s inability to account for the ways in which intersectionality shapes these horrible experiences. When women of color report instances of sexual harassment, authorities often view it through the lense of racism or through the lense of sexism. The inability of an intersectional approach forces the chain of command to attend to one issue while dismissing the other which ultimately undermines these experiences. The very systems that are meant to protect women of color on active duty fail to do so because of their inability to approach these crimes through the intersecting lense.

With respect to representational intersectionality, Crenshaw identifies a link between the devaluation of women of color and the ways in which we are represented. Crenshaw states that “race and gender converge so that the concerns of minority women fall into the void between concern’s about women’s rights and concerns about racism (Crenshaw 1282). Because society fails to consider the ways in which the different facets of identity intersect for women of color, feminist and antiracist movements achieve representation in ways that are exclusive to white women and black men. The failure to account for intersectionality prioritizes black men and white women and in turn, harms black women only to support the “higher powers’’: patriarchy and whiteness. The inability to overlap the different dimensions of identity creates a void that falsely produces non-intersectional identities and experiences, forcing women of color to other dimensions of disempowerment and subjugation.

LaVena Johnson was an E3 in the Army. She was found dead in her tent. Her death was ruled as a suicide but the evidence showed signs of rape and battery. This led many to believe that Department of Defense covered up the crime.

In many instances, women of color who experience sexual assault in the military do not get the justice they deserve. This is partially because of the chain of command and partially because these women are female and of color. The study acknowledges that:

One’s military rank also communicates a variety of spoken and unspoken rules for normative behavior and interpersonal interactions, which may be protective for those of higher rank (Buchanan, NiCole T, et al).

In the chain of command, those of a higher rank who commit crimes of sexual assault are protected while victims of lower ranks are not. This creates a system of protection for predators that continues to tolerate such crimes. Most importantly, it allows for a system of extreme retaliation with the purpose to silence victims of lower ranks. If given legitimacy, women of color in the military are not properly represented when experiencing sexual assault because if race is taken into account gender is dismissed, and vice versa. When race and gender intersect in these crimes, an intersectional approach must be taken. Representational intersectionality exposes the ways in which the military system is complicit in these crimes by creating systems that perpetuate and tolerate harmful power relations in the military.

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