Let’s Talk About Sex (in the Military)

October 29, 2015

The issue of women in combat roles has been a fixture in the headlines recently and yet, despite all of the discussion, it still inspires intense and spirited debate that is not always constructive. My goal is not to advocate either side of the debate, but to raise the quality of the discussion.

So let’s talk about sex … the noun, not the verb.

Sex” is a biological term, defined by Oxford online as: “Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans … are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.” For the vast majority of humans, one of these two adjectives (male or female) applies. Much of the historical debate about women in combat — fitness standards, for example — has been about the physical differences between males and females. These sex differences can be described, tested, and measured. More recent discussion, however, is really about gender.

Gender” is not the same as sex. Oxford defines gender as: “The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).” In other words, gender is a cultural construct and describes concepts like masculinity and femininity, while sex is generally binary and common to all humans. For a hilarious example from American culture, watch this clip from The Big Bang Theory. Like all other cultural constructs, gender varies between societies and evolves over time. Gender roles in Sweden, for example, are culturally different than gender roles in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the gender roles of women in American society have changed significantly, especially in the last 50 years. An important component of that change has been the expanding role of women in the military, a profession traditionally very closely associated with masculinity. We still hear the phrase “Join the military and become a man.” I wonder perhaps if this is why men in the military are “men” (“Make sure to take care of the men.”) and women are “females” (“How many females are in your unit?”). A perhaps under-appreciated aspect of the debate is the disparity between the expansion of women’s roles and men’s roles in American society.

While women’s roles have evolved and expanded, culturally acceptable roles for men have not kept pace. For example, why do we still say “male nurse?” American men as well as women are confined by gender boundaries. For men, the once exclusive role of being responsible for direct ground combat, an occupation traditionally considered to be among the most “masculine” in our society, is being challenged. It is not just about the practicalities of integrating females into all-male units — the military has been doing that for decades. Rather, the issue raises much more fundamental questions not only for the men in those units (How does integration affect my sense of self as a Ranger/SEAL/infantryman?) but for our society as a whole (Will the opening of combat roles become an expectation for women to serve in a time of war as it is for men?). These are gender questions, not sex questions. And they are difficult questions not just for the military but for our culture overall because they are challenging a fundamental aspect of our individual and collective identities. My hope is that an understanding of gender as a cultural construct, and an appreciation for the deeply held perspectives of men and women on both sides, will inform and temper this important debate. In order for that to happen, however, all parties need to be willing to have a constructive conversation.

While the concepts of sex and gender are easy to understand, they’re exceptionally difficult to talk about. Because gender is so fundamental to identity, even constructive comments can feel personal, which can blind us to the topic at hand and make objective debate impossible. Contributing to the difficulty are the labels so often and quickly applied to those on both sides of the conversation: sexist, misogynist, feminist, etc. In 1995, Drs. Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson introduced the concept of “stereotype threat,” which “refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.” While their research was focused on determining whether stereotype threat affects academic performance, I believe it is also a barrier to open, honest, and constructive debate about women in combat roles (and other culturally sensitive topics like race and religion). Quite simply, people avoid discussing certain things because they want to avoid being labeled, and, perhaps more important, they want to avoid the social (and sometimes professional) costs associated with those labels. This caution is natural and understandable, but it also prevents mutual appreciation of opposing points of view, a prerequisite to productive discussion. My hope is that the concepts of gender and stereotype threat contribute to that mutual appreciation and raise the quality of the debate about the important issue of women in combat roles.


Colonel Katherine Graef is a U.S. Army logistics officer currently studying at the Army War College. She commanded a Combat Sustainment Support Battalion and has served in Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iraq. Most recently, she served as a Military Professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.