Image: A female service member stands at the front of a formation of soldiers, her gaze resolutely focused beyond the camera. “Military women, rule.” by Johnny Silvercloud is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Women who enter the armed forces are expected to be strong, tough, and masculine. Feminine insults, like being called a girl, are used to denigrate and motivate male service members. New research shows a hidden consequence of these gendered expectations: undeniably feminine moments in servicewomen’s lives, like pregnancy or entering a new heterosexual relationship, increase their risk of assault and discrimination.

Sociologist Stephanie Bonnes interviewed 50 current and former servicewomen. Over 59% of the participants experienced sexual harassment and discrimination that coincided with feminine life events like dating, engagement, marriage to a man, or  pregnancy. Feminine life events jeopardize female service members’ efforts to appear strong and masculine and put them in danger. 

One participant explains how she was victimized  after she started dating a fellow serviceman. The day that her partner left the unit for training, her superior sexually assaulted her. 

 “This NCO cornered me and grabbed and kissed me. I was completely caught off guard. I mean it was right in front of his home, with his wife inside.

The participant described how this had shocked her. Not only was this very public, she had also never had any issues with this coworker before. The timing of the incident led her to believe that her superior waited for her new boyfriend to leave before assaulting her. 

Discrimination against servicewomen who are pregnant or in heterosexual relationships is also deeply ingrained in military institutions. One woman described how her she was treated differently by the military organization after she told her unit she was pregnant.

 “So, I got pregnant and of course they’re liable for lots of things, so God forbid I pick up  a single chair. But then they went and made me go clean the bathrooms for the company.”

The findings show how the undeniably feminine moments in servicewomen’s lives put them at risk for both sexual harassment and workplace discrimination – and how women in the US military are put in harm’s way by their fellow soldiers.