Brother-and-Sister Brotherhood: Sexual Harassment and Gender-Mixed Barracks in the Norwegian Armed Forces

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The sun never rose the first day Kari began her service in the Norwegian Armed Forces.[1] Daylight didn’t appear at Setermoen Camp, a northern army base situated about two hours outside of Tromsø, for nearly a month. The Arctic air, resting around -40 degrees Fahrenheit, lashed the 19-year-old and her cohort of new recruits as they completed training activities. But Kari says she never resented her placement in the Intelligence Battalion at Setermoen.

Although conscription of both men and women has been in place in Norway since 2015, limited demand for soldiers means less than 15 percent of eligible teenagers are called into service. Positions are so selective, some high school seniors sign up for rigorous exercise programs just to improve their chances. The daughter of a former colonel and former sergeant, Kari had long been eager to experience the physical challenges of the Norwegian Armed Forces, so her January conscription at Setermoen came as great news.

What Kari quickly found most challenging were not the physical trials, but the mental ones. Kari’s group of recruits numbered thirty-six, but there were only five other women. She’d heard before her service began that she would live in the same room as men. She knew, in fact, that all female army recruits lived in gender-mixed rooms—Norway’s unorthodox approach to combating gender discrimination. She hadn’t anticipated, however, that it only takes one woman to make a room “gender-mixed.”

When housing assignments were announced, Kari was placed in a six-bunk room with five men. She initially tried to remain positive about her situation, and she says the room dynamic was fine at first. She didn’t mind undressing in front of the five others, as army women must do unless they want to walk to the bathroom. But as the training period progressed, Kari came to feel like an outcast in her own room.

“If I was the one that cleaned up, or if I said something, I experienced being called crazy, stupid, and ugly, and getting it shouted in my face,” she said in August, more than six months into her year-long service. “It was always me that was ganged up on when it was arguments, and it was probably because…They said it, because brothers support brothers, and I was a girl.”

After several months, all of the recruits were reassigned to live with their work teams and Kari landed in a room with another woman and four men. By August 2019, she said she was happy with the gender-mixed setup, which the Norwegian Army has widely embraced in recent years to tackle women’s integration, but Kari’s initial experience paints a troubling portrait of the rooms. Compared to the systems of many other nations around the world, in which militaries tend to be highly masculine and gender-segregated, Norway’s integrative approach is radical—and some argue, potentially counterintuitive. Still, Norwegian military officials and researchers have maintained that erasing gender distinctions desexualizes male-female relationships and mitigates the alienation of women in the armed forces, replacing these attitudes with mutual respect and platonic, familial dynamics.

But respect is precarious. Even the women in Kari’s recruit group who had more amicable living situations said they experienced sexism in the gender-mixed barracks. Early on in their training, the showers in the women’s bathroom broke, so the cohort had to share the men’s showers. (Bathrooms remain gender-segregated on base.) Intelligence Battalion leadership posted different male and female shower times, but the men ignored the times, locking the women soldiers out of the bathroom during their assigned slot. “We had to stay there for three hours before we could shower on the hall, because [the male soldiers] were like, ‘Fuck the hours,’” Kari said, noting that this harassment sometimes took on a sexual tone. “We have experienced being called ‘cheap’ when we walk from the showers just in our towels.”

Yet despite this harassment, Kari says she’s a proponent of mixed-gender housing. Living intimately with men may expose women to some heightened harassment, and it doesn’t eradicate all misconduct, but the female conscripts in the Intelligence Battalion said an alternative system—such as gender-segregated housing, where brutal same-gender harassment and bullying can still occur—would be worse.

I met Kari in August 2019 while spending a week living in the Intelligence Battalion’s gender-mixed barracks at Setermoen. Kari was one of a few dozen conscripts with whom I spoke—some women, some men, some who had begun their service in January, some from the August batch that had arrived just four days prior. Despite these differences, many of the soldiers echoed one another in their attitudes toward gender-mixed rooms. They don’t believe the integrated bunks have eliminated harassment, but people are hesitant to criticize the policy. They’re aware that Norway’s ability to implement such a program without more disastrous results is perhaps a reflection of Norway’s relative gender equity. And some wonder if they can criticize Norway for a preventative strategy that other nations, including the United States, would never dare to pursue.

There are good reasons to be believe a similarly radical gender integration policy would fail in the United States Armed Forces. The U.S. Military is more than 20 times the size of the Norwegian Armed Forces, and its personnel are less homogenous, representing more racial and religious diversity. The U.S. Military also engages is more active combat, follows a highly hierarchical structure, and is currently an all-volunteer force. Women’s integration in the U.S. Armed Forces has generally progressed more slowly, with women still making up a smaller portion of the American forces than the Norwegian ones. But Norway’s mixed-gender rooms provide a crucial case study of a preventative sexual misconduct policy that juxtaposes the United States’ largely reactive protocols. Norway’s approach offers insight into the challenges that accompany a startling reimagining of a military where sexual assault can be stopped before it happens, where gender might cease to define soldiers’ experiences.

But a supposedly gender-blind military is not actually gender-blind. Though the Norwegian Armed Forces’ gender-integration policy may diminish the “othering” of military women, many female conscripts’ experiences—alongside a startling internal report on sexual assault in the Norwegian Armed Forces from February 2019—point to another danger: the potential incompatibility of embracing both a preventative and reactive strategy toward military sexual assault.

The particularity of sexual misconduct is pivotal, because unlike some other forms of physical violence, rape and sexual harassment are offenses more likely to be second-guessed by their own survivors. Such events often leave no physical evidence, and the social stigma around them permits victims to doubt their own memories and interpretations of what they experienced. By claiming that gender-mixed rooms desexualize the military and foster familial relationships between conscripts, the Norwegian Armed Forces inadvertently risks creating a set of expectations in female soldiers’ minds that sexual assault is being prevented—expectations that, when the system fails and conscripts are harassed or assaulted, can make it harder for them to name what they’ve experienced as assault, or make them feel that reporting the incident would be a betrayal of the supposed military fraternity they’ve bought into.

“I think overall it works, but you can, as well, always risk sharing a room with some moron that has a mindset from the 1800s, like women shouldn’t vote or something. You can’t control that,” Kari said. But even these situations beyond the women’s control, like the incident of being locked out of the showers, can easily go undiscussed. “I think that’s really taboo to talk about, among women. And it was sort of like…you just have to experience…It’s probably nothing. It’s probably you that’s overthinking or something. Or that it’s probably the way it should be.”

Like many of the Nordic countries, Norway has long had a reputation for gender equity. Women were invited to enlist in 1977. They began serving in combat positions in 1985, more than thirty years before the United States opened analogous positions to women. Yet despite these developments, women in the Norwegian Armed Forces have continually noted two central challenges: that female soldiers are habitually underrepresented and struggle to integrate themselves in the military’s masculine culture.

When Brigadier General Ingrid Gjerde enlisted in 1987, she and her female peers felt femininity and military life were somehow antithetical. “We tried to fit into the male stereotype of what an infantry officer is, or what a soldier is. So kind of small signs—I would never wear makeup,” Gjerde told me at the Ministry of Defence in Oslo, where she now acts as the Chief of Defence’s spokesperson and one of the most senior women in the Norwegian Armed Forces. “I learned to talk with a deeper voice and kind of act more like a man than a woman. I felt that that was expected to be accepted. Probably it wasn’t, but that’s maybe also something I more thought as a young woman than it actually was. But that’s the way I felt. That we had to try to fit into the male mass, the masculine culture, more than they should accept that we are coming in.”

Women like Gjerde were often one of only two or three women in their incoming groups at officer candidate school—distinct from their male classmates in number, ability to integrate in the military’s culture, and perhaps most importantly, military obligation. The Norwegian military has run on a system of conscription since 1854. Until 2015, all men became eligible to be called into service upon turning 19 and were required to complete a 55-question survey about their skills, work ethic, and attitudes toward the military. Those identified as strong candidates were obligated to attend a day of physical, intellectual, and emotional testing. And finally, because of the Norwegian Armed Forces’ limited demand, only a small portion of those tested were selected each year. Women were invited to complete the 55-question recruitment survey beginning in 2010, but unlike their male counterparts, those that enlisted were given 90 days to try out military service before signing their contracts.

In 2013, the Norwegian Parliament voted on whether to make conscription gender-neutral. Women made up only 10 percent of the Armed Forces at the time, and the push to expand conscription was heavily supported by the Militært Kvinnelig Nettverk, the Norwegian Armed Forces’ official women’s network. Signal Officer Miriam Weierud, the current leader of the network, said the bipartisan initiative was crusaded by Norway’s youth political organizations. The movement for universal conscription faced surprising opposition from civilian women’s groups, which argued that childbirth was analogous to conscription—women’s sacrifice for their country. Despite these criticisms, gender-neutral conscription passed by a landslide and was first implemented in 2015.

But Norway’s radical approach to gender integration in their armed forces did not stop there. In recent years, the Norwegian Army has embraced and implemented gender-mixed housing, like the system in which Kari found herself. Women make up only 20 to 25 percent of new recruits, and the makeup of the gender-mixed rooms often reflect this imbalance. Military leaders vow, however, that the rooms are successful in encouraging soldiers to care for one another regardless of gender.

“The mutual respect developed between soldiers in gender-mixed rooms is less biased and less prone to develop into something unhealthy,” said Lieutenant Colonel Aleksander Jankov, the commander of the Intelligence Battalion at Setermoen. By removing artificial barriers, the integrated rooming system discourages the soldiers from sexualizing one another and instead unites them via familial bonds, he said.

Gender-mixed rooms were originally borne out of necessity. The army experimented with them first at the Russian border guard, where recruits are typically placed in groups of four that live and work together, often isolated for weeks at a time. Once gender-integrated, these teams could not bunk separately, so mixed-gender rooms happened by default. Over the next five years, gender-mixed rooms spread from the bottom-up. At Setermoen, gender-integrated barracks began with a young woman who complained that living in an all-female room—as opposed to with her team, as her male peers did—was inconvenient because she worked the nightshift. None of her female roommates kept the same hours as her, so they consistently disrupted one another’s sleep. Her platoon commanders granted the request, and gender-mixed rooming has been in place at Setermoen ever since.

 Mainstream defenses of gender-mixed rooms have expanded beyond pure pragmatism, and they now orbit around gender integration and harassment. When female recruits are separated from their peers in housing, military leaders and researchers have observed that they are last to hear about announcements or pertinent information. Miriam Weierud, of the Norwegian women’s military network, said she experienced this unfairness during officer candidate school. “The guys, they always forgot to go into our room and tell us the news or what we were going to do, or the changes. So we were forgotten,” she told me. She is fairly confident she would have had a more positive experience in school if mixed-gender rooms were in place.

More hotly debated is gender-mixed housing’s impact on sexual misconduct in the Norwegian Armed Forces. No one disputes the idea that integrated rooms help women access information faster, perhaps because the stakes of being wrong are fairly low. The defense of gender-mixed rooms as a desexualizing force is higher risk—because in putting female soldiers in a setting where men will allegedly develop more respect for them, the Norwegian Armed Forces also potentially exposes women to more instances in which they are vulnerable to sexual harassment. Nonetheless, Norwegian army leaders have emphasized gender-mixed rooms as part of their sexual misconduct strategy, leaning into the rhetoric of familial relationships superseding physical attraction.

“My experience is that if you have just a male room or a female room, the males…they look on the women in a different way. They look on the women in a sexual way. Like, it’s very exciting. Maybe you can see bras. Maybe you can see them without a shirt or trousers,” one of the platoon commanders at Setermoen explained. “If you do a mixed room, these excitements…they disappear. Because you get this brother-and-sister brotherhood.”

         In recent years, several Norwegian academics have studied masculinity and gender integration in the military. Frank Brundtland Steder and his colleagues at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) studied male soldiers’ attitudes toward different gender-related topics after living with women for various durations, and they found that men who lived with women were more likely to report favorable opinions of women in the armed forces and implementing gender quotas. Sociologists Dag Ellingsen and Ulla-Britt Lilleaas examined gender-mixed rooms as an application of the “contact thesis,” the idea that increased exposure to an antagonized group, under strong leadership, can actually facilitate cooperation. Military leaders have pointed to Ellingsen’s work to support gender-mixed groups, but the sociologist is realistic about the system’s precarity. “If you have one guy inside one of these rooms who is very much against it, he can ruin the whole atmosphere,” he said.

 Although Kari experienced harassment in her first room assignment, she thinks the exposure hypothesis is somewhat true. In February, all of the recruits were required to complete a week of draining physical tasks with limited food and water—a rite of passage by which recruits become soldiers. At the beginning of this week-long winter outdoor trek, Kari got her period and bled through her clothes. She began sobbing when she noticed. She hadn’t expected her period, so she didn’t bring any tampons or pads, and she didn’t have access to a bathroom to clean her underwear. Kari worried that her teammates—who were all men—would be disgusted, so she was surprised when they asked what they could do to help, offered to carry her things, and provided emotional support. Looking back, she thinks their reactions were “cute,” and she doesn’t believe they would have acted the same if they knew her less intimately. Kari was eventually able to get a change of underwear and menstrual products from a female sergeant, but she says this experience underlined the comfort and openness that mixed-gender cohabitation can foster.

“It has sucked, sometimes, being in the military,” Kari admitted to me, but her tone when discussing her experiences as a female soldier repeatedly switched back and forth, from positive to negative, optimistic to disillusioned. She seemed herself unsure of how to evaluate or reconcile the advantages and flaws of mixed-gender rooms, warily acceptant of a system that benefited and disappointed her. “I think it’s just like…coincidence. You can risk, as I said, meeting people like that, but it’s not the system’s fault, actually. It’s more like a personal level. Because the system is built in a way that wants everybody to do their best.”

What’s unclear, some conscripts said, is whether it is enough for Norway’s strategy to want everybody to do their best. As Dag Ellingsen pointed out, it only takes one immature man to ruin a mixed-gender room. So the Norwegian Armed Forces must ask, how many men are ruining them?

Vice Admiral Louise Dedichen suspects the answer is higher than other Norwegian military leaders wish to believe.

“I’m skeptical, because I know from my own experience that it’s so hard to speak up when you’re 19, 20, or 21 – or even up to 30. Because you would so much like just to be one of the other ones. You don’t want to be a stranger,” Dedichen told me in her Oslo office. “I think that everybody needs a zone of intimacy. So I don’t think that [gender-mixed rooms are] a good idea, and I’ve said it at all times.”

Dedichen began her career in the Norwegian Armed Forces in 1983, when she was 19 years old. Since then, she says, she has suffered various forms of gender discrimination in the military, both privately and publicly. “It’s not too easy to know whether or not you are a victim of harassment because you get used to a way of talking and everything, because you’re just drawn into a culture,” she said.

Dedichen received national attention in 2008 when she was appointed to be the head of the Norwegian Defence University College and simultaneously made the first female two-star general in Norway. Shortly after, one of Dedichen’s male competitors for the university position took the Ministry of Defence to court, alleging that he was the victim of gender discrimination because Dedichen was less qualified. The case stretched on nearly six and a half years, culminating at the Norwegian Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Dedichen’s appointment.

Between this experience and two other instances in which Norwegian officials cited Dedichen’s children as reason to deny her a job, Dedichen has come to distrust the veracity of the military’s claims about equity. As head of the Defence College, she has put aside the equivalent of nearly $60,000 in the school’s annual budget for the study of gender inequity and related policies like gender-mixed rooms. “The culture is not good enough,” she said. “The typical argument against my principles is that, ‘No, they want it themselves,’ people say. But then again, I don’t think that [female soldiers] dare say, ‘No, this is not for me.’”

In June 2019, Dedichen was appointed to take over as chief of the Norwegian Military Mission to NATO, making her the first woman globally to serve on NATO’s Military Committee. Along with Vice Admiral Elisabeth Natvig, Dedichen is now one of Norway’s two female three-star generals. But Vice Admiral Natvig comes down quite differently on gender-mixed rooms. Unlike Dedichen, Natvig says she owes her military success to her gender, and she is not so skeptical of Norway’s gender-mixed barracks. “I think the idea is good. We are working together, and fighting together, and crying together, and doing everything. So why not should we sleep together?”

When I arrived at Setermoen in August 2019, the newest batch of recruits were still getting settled. The gender disparity was slightly smaller than in the previous cohort—14 of the 44 newcomers were women—and no female soldiers were placed alone in gender-mixed rooms this time. Several days into their service, most of the fourteen young women had already started sitting together in training lectures and walking to unstructured meals with one another, but they were optimistic that they would be treated like any other Norwegian soldiers.

In the middle of their first week, the group gathered to practice running four-minute intervals. As in all trainings—even the most physical ones—the 44 recruits were not separated by gender, but instead lined up together along the large dirt track just outside the gate of the base. Armed with a handheld timer, their sergeant shouted for them to begin, and the sea of bodies—dressed in the same unisex running shorts and green t-shirts—took off.

By the first time around the track, one of the new female recruits, Sigfrid, was in 10th place. After two loops, she had gained to 7th place. Her third time rounding the track’s final straightaway, she was in 6th, behind only a clump of five men that had led the pack the whole time. Some other female soldiers congratulated Sigfrid after the intervals were over, but she didn’t realize she had finished in 6th place until later.

“I’m used to working out until my body hurts,” Sigfrid said. Still, she admitted she was trying not to compare her physical results to others because she knew there would be times when she didn’t fare so well.

The next day, after going out on a 3-kilometer run with her military backpack to make sure it fit right, Sigfrid told me she didn’t care much about being the fastest woman. She wanted to be a fast enough soldier.

Setermoen Army Camp lives in the shadow of the northern village’s towering mountains, perpetually adorned with snow. They block Norway’s coastal winds from reaching the town, keeping the area colder in winter and hotter in summer than other nearby towns. With little wind, nothing masks the sounds on base. The soldiers brushing their soft black leather boots before entering the mess hall. Rødfis, small plastic pellets used to practice shooting, whizzing through the crisp air. The continual velcroing and un-velcroing of the conscripts’ pant pockets as they move inside and outside, stuffing their military hats into a side pocket with each pass indoors.

One sound largely absent from the aural landscape is sergeants shouting. The week of training I observed at Setermoen differed vastly from popular depictions of boot camp in the United States. The Norwegian officers tended to use firm but calm tones, rarely invading the personal space of the recruits when offering corrections. More dominant personalities aren’t entirely nonexistent on base, though. Since 2018, hundreds of U.S. Marines have traveled in six-month deployments to Setermoen, located just 400 miles from Norway’s border to Russia, to study cold-weather fighting. The Norwegian and American soldiers do not train alongside one another, but the difference in culture between the two samples is palpable.

On the interval-running day, as the Norwegian recruits jogged to the Setermoen track, they passed a group of U.S. Marines running in the opposite direction. The Norwegians’ pace was moderate and their officer ran silently in front of them, swinging his arms. As the Americans ran, the group carried a colossal tree-size log on their shoulders. As they shuffled, an instructor ran alongside them. “Let’s go! You can’t fucking give up,” he shouted. “Why are you slowing down?”

This moment of crossing does not represent the totality of either the U.S. Marine Corps or the Norwegian Armed Forces, but it acutely marks a difference in the conventional masculinity of the two militaries’ cultures—a difference, which, for the time being, makes the prospect of a U.S. implementation of gender-mixed barracks seem unlikely.

Women make up only eight percent of the The U.S. Corps, and the Marines have still not fully integrated recruit training like the other branches of the U.S. Military. In January 2019, the Marines announced they would begin mixed-gender recruit training at Paris Island, South Carolina, but even there, the women are led by separate drill instructors and live in different squad bays. In 2018, the Defense Department’s Report on Sexual Assault in the Military revealed that the Marines had the highest rate of sexual assault, with nearly 11 percent of women saying they had experienced this form of misconduct. But the crisis of sexual assault in the United States Military is not isolated to the Marine Corps. The same report indicated that 1 in every 8 women between the ages of 17 and 20 in the United States Military experiences sexual assault. The numbers are not much better for 21 to 24-year-old women: 1 in every 11.

Several Norwegian soldiers said their own observations of the Marines at Setermoen were enough to make them doubt gender-mixed rooming could ever be safely implemented in the United States Military. Leif, a male recruit who began his service in January 2019, moved into the Intelligence Battalion barracks when there were still some Corps members living down the hall. The other members of Leif’s troop voted him to be their official representative, so Leif became responsible for listening to all complaints that his peers did not feel comfortable bringing directly to their superiors. Some issues immediately arose concerning the Marines.

“All the girls noticed that there was catcalling. There were these peeping eyes. There was just ‘accidentally’ walking into the women’s bathroom,” Leif said. Given these American soldiers’ inability to respectfully share a building with women, Leif said he would be wary of putting them in the same rooms.

Although all of the U.S. Marines have since been relocated to barracks on the opposite side of camp, Leif has continued to have several interactions with U.S. soldiers that reaffirm his negative perception of their sexual culture. The Marines are now prohibited from attending social events at the outdoor hut at Setermoen where Norwegian soldiers go to build bonfires, drink beer, and party on Friday evenings. Leif said the Marines used to attend these gatherings, but after a string of misconduct incidents, they now get chased off by Norwegian officers who stand watch.

One of the other male conscripts in Leif’s platoon, Christian, broke into laughter at the idea that Norway’s approach to gender integration could ever be applied to the United States. “All I can say is, they’re worse than us. Not just the way they talk about women,” he said, admitting he is buddies with some Marines that cut his hair. “Behavior and talking, they’re worse.”

         The few hundred Marines currently stationed at Setermoen do not represent all Marines, and American soldiers’ behavior abroad on an allied military base does not necessarily reflect how they would behave toward American female peers in mixed-gender rooms. Still, the Marines’ track record at Setermoen—the idea that the Marines cannot be trusted to respect women in a public space, much less a private one—doesn’t provide a hopeful outlook for how a similarly integrative approach towards preventing sexual assault would play out in United States Military. Comparing Norwegian gender inequity to sexual harassment in the U.S. forces, the Norwegian women’s military network leader Miriam Weierud summarized: “We are like heaven compared to them.”

In early 2019, Norwegian military officials had to reckon more with internal gender dynamics. During February, the Norwegian Armed Forces released the Most Report, the results of an internal survey conducted on bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in the military. The results shocked many military officials and civilians alike. Forty-four soldiers marked that they had been sexually assaulted within the past year. Of those individuals, 24 were women and 20 were men. An additional 123 people said they experienced attempted assault. And yet, in this year-long period, only two formal reports were made.

Among those unsurprised by the low rate of reporting was Vice Admiral Dedichen, who said the masculine culture of the Norwegian Armed Forces still persists below the surface. She tied the issue back to a widely publicized incident that happened in 2011 involving a female recruit who alleged she was forced to bathe nude with her platoon of 30 men as their male officers looked on. After review, the Norwegian Armed Forces announced that they would not amend the military’s bathing policy. “The result of the case was nothing, and that was also harmful, especially for the girls,” Dedichen said, explaining that it provided women little reason to believe they would benefit from reporting sexual misconduct.

Leif was also disappointed but unsurprised when the Most Report was released in February 2019. As the elected representative of his troop, he said he has witnessed both sides of gender integration—hearing his female peers open up about negative experiences, and still, as a male conscript, being able to infiltrate and observe all-male spaces. After more than six months of service, Leif said he was unsure that gender-mixed barracks change men’s fundamental attitudes toward women. Living intimately with women may change soldiers’ internal beliefs, but it might only inform their observable behavior in women’s presences, he said.

Several of the male conscripts with whom I spoke, including both Leif and Christian, said the male soldiers in their rooms simply wait until the women are in the bathroom to discuss the most attractive women around camp that they want to sleep with. One military official said female soldiers have likewise admitted to sexualizing male peers in their absence.

“When there are no girls inside, they’re always like, ‘Oh, this one is kind of loose, and this one is kind of prudish.’ The language that is being used is quite dehumanizing, I find, sometimes. Because it’s not talking about each other as peers, nor fellow humans. Just like, objects and classifications,” Leif said, describing the modes of conversation that dominate all-male groups in his troop. “I don’t think they necessarily hate women. I just don’t think they’re serious enough people to perceive them as peers…More like objects for conquering.”

Shortly after the publication of the Most Report—and the incident of the men locking the women out of the showers—the Intelligence Battalion leaders sat the soldiers down for a serious talk. The female conscripts said they appreciated the seriousness with which their officers discussed the issue of harassment, but they said their male peers quickly forgot the Most Report. “I don’t know what can make it stop and make it better, because the reaction was like…They were taking it very seriously [for] like five days, and then it was like it’s not that important again,” one of the six women said. The male soldiers seemed to reach a general consensus that harassment was a serious offense, but none recognized patterns of it in their own behavior.

Lieutenant Colonel Jankov, the commander of the Intelligence Battalion at Setermoen, has pursued a zero-tolerance policy among the 450 soldiers under his command, and he has removed a soldier from his unit for misconduct in the past. Jankov described the success of Norway’s gender-integration approach as a waiting game—but one that can’t be played in idle. Jankov said the Norwegian Armed Forces’ recent strides toward becoming more gender-balanced have already made its army more equitable and militarily stronger.

“The basic programming of your mind is completed by the age of ten. So everything happening after that is reprogramming, and it’s very tedious and hard,” Jankov said. “Every nine-year-old girl in Norway today knows that she will eventually be drafted for conscription and basic military service, and that she has equal opportunities to pursue a military career.” The current recruits were already 15 years old when Norway expanded conscription to include women in 2015, so Jankov thinks that they are predisposed to think of the armed forces as more suited to men. The Armed Forces has essentially found that even their preventive strategy comes too late. It must begin years before conscription.

The hallways of the Setermoen barracks are lined with posters about mutual respect, bystander intervention, and reporting protocols. The battalion leaders have emphasized to the female soldiers how important it is to report incidents of harassment, so that the perpetrators of misconduct can be punished. But Miriam Weierud, of the women’s military network, doubts the efficacy of these initiatives. “Of course they’re good, but there’s nothing new,” she said. “It’s the same that we have been talking about since 2000.” And Weierud expressed concern that the arguments in defense of gender-mixed rooms—that the presence of women tames male misconduct—may actually harm female equity in the armed forces.

“I’m kind of sick and tired of hearing that I’m here to make the working environment so much better, or that I have the soft values. Because I’m not that kind of person,” Weierud said. This rhetoric implicitly makes women responsible for the behavior of their male peers, and it can unintentionally turn incidents of misconduct—failure of the military’s strategy—into perceived failures of female soldiers themselves.

 Critics of the mixed-gender rooms tend to articulate concerns about women’s physical safety—that men could force themselves upon female soldiers in their own assigned bunks. And the Norwegian conscripts themselves say that gender-integrated rooming would never work in the U.S. Military, given the behavior they have witnessed by the Marines at Setermoen.

But many of the female conscripts’ experiences raise a separate issue: whether Norway’s preventive strategy may inadvertently protect sexist behavior. This dilemma is deeply entangled with the nature of sexual misconduct, which is unique in the shame and self-doubt it often provokes in its survivors. In a military setting, where female soldiers often worry about assimilating into a masculine culture, the process of speaking out can feel particularly perilous, female conscripts said. Norwegian military leaders have defended the implementation of mixed-gender rooms by saying the system successfully prevents discrimination, but their familial rhetoric may also leave some victims of sexual harassment in an exceptionally disoriented position, prompting them to doubt their victimhood or feel that reporting violations constitutes a betrayal of their brothers.

Cecilie, another female conscript, arrived at Setermoen back in January 2019. Although the troop struggled with select instances of group bullying toward the women, many of the male soldiers also tried to independently cultivate one-on-one friendships with the six female conscripts. Cecilie said she thought this was because it was easier for her peers to open up emotionally to women and process the emotional challenges of military service. Soon, one soldier in her troop developed a particularly strong attachment to Cecilie.

“He was following me around, and I think it was just because he [thought] we’re good friends because I listened a lot to him, and nobody else really [did] that,” Cecilie told me. The male soldier began to request more and more of Cecilie’s time throughout the summer, asking to take a walk by the river that threads through Setermoen, and even to hang out during their precious days off. Cecilie agreed to talk one weekend in July, but when the time came, she felt uncomfortable. She thought about canceling but decided against it.

“We talked for two hours and he said that he thought about taking his own life,” Cecilie told me. When she asked if there was anything she could do to stop him, things took a darker turn. “Then he said, ‘Yeah, there is one thing you can do with it, and that is if we can be more than friends, and if you like, if you can kiss me, and if we…yeah,” Cecilie said. The male soldier then told Cecilie that she couldn’t tell anyone what he had said, and that if she did, he would be so mad that he would kill himself.

Cecilie followed his instructions, keeping what had happened a secret for a while. She felt responsible for having developed such a close relationship with this male peer, and she feared that breaching his trust might put him at risk. As a fellow soldier, if she had a responsibility to protect him on the battlefield, would it be a betrayal to jeopardize his safety off the battlefield?

When Cecilie disclosed to Kari what the male soldier had privately told her, her friend insisted that she report it to their troop chief. “You can’t have this on your heart,” Kari remembers saying, and she ultimately went herself to the troop chief to report the situation on behalf of Cecilie. Their superior officer was horrified to learn the incident occurred under his watch, and he immediately confronted Cecilie’s male peer to tell him to stop.

For the time being, though, it seems many of these perpetrators of misconduct go unchecked, creating startling figures like the 44 individuals who were assaulted and 123 soldiers who experienced attempted sexual assault within the past year. “There is something in the culture that is so not fixed. So we have a long way to go,” Vice Admiral Dedichen told me. “I wouldn’t recommend my own daughters into service,” she added.

Norway has earned international attention in recent years for its progressive steps to pursue military gender equality. It is the only European or NATO country to conscript both men and women, and along with Sweden, Norway is one of the two nations to widely implement gender-mixed rooms in its national armed forces.

This positive recognition is not unfounded. Gender-mixed rooms have offered a successful solution to one facet of military inequity—all-female rooms receiving delayed information and feeling professionally alienated—and they display Norway’s willingness to chase a preventative approach, the nation’s refusal to settle for punishing perpetrators after the fact. Juxtaposed with Norway’s reputation as a gender-equal utopia, the United States Armed Forces can seem toxic, outmoded, or even complicit to sexual misconduct. Though the different branches of the U.S. Military are developing robust mechanisms for reporting sexual assault, the Department of Defense’s Prevention Plan of Action, published in April 2019, remains a relatively new addition to the military’s previously awareness-driven prevention efforts. And the U.S. Marines alleged conduct at Setermoen is particularly damning.

The Norwegian Armed Forces’ implementation of gender-mixed barracks, however, may have caused some female conscripts in Setermoen’s Intelligence Battalion to experience a dose of cognitive dissonance. Most of the women assume the efficacy of gender-mixed rooms, but there are scarce systems in place to monitor the success of the setup, besides trusting women to report violations. In defending the implementation of gender-mixed rooms, Norwegian military leaders have projected perhaps undue confidence in the rooms’ desexualizing effectiveness, closing doors for soldiers to speak out when their experiences do not align. If the infraction were not as elusive as sexual assault, or had more observable signs, this tension between preventive and reactive approaches might be less acute. But according to the Most Report’s small sample size, it appears that Norwegian victims of military sexual assault file official reports even less frequently than victims in the United States, where reporting rates rest at only 30 percent.

Kari does not blame Norway’s system—when it’s the people within it, she says, that undermine things. “I think [Norwegian leaders] really want it to be an equal system, where both boys and girls can do their best to serve their country. And I think everybody that works here really [wants] to do it. But unfortunately, some people that come here, or get accepted to come here, ruin that.”

Yet it’s unclear to what extent the strategy and the people can be disentangled. In pursuing an equal system, some Norwegian leaders have presupposed that mixed-gender conditions quash misconduct and fortify the fraternity of military service, implicitly neglecting to reaffirm survivors of sexual assault when the strategy fails. Though the United States provides a powerful counterexample of how the Norwegian military’s sexual culture could be ostensibly worse, Norway’s scheme also demonstrates a somewhat bleak lesson for the United States: a gender-integrative strategy around sexual misconduct can make assault itself harder to name, especially if victims feel they will be pushed into antagonistic roles by choosing to come forward. Pursuing an equal system doesn’t immediately make one. And in Norway’s case, the gender-integration strategy’s early success has also left some female survivors to choose between perceived traitorship and hushed brotherhood.


Footnotes

[1] For the security and privacy of the soldiers interviewed, their names have been changed. Any listed names of military officials, which include a first and last name, are not pseudonyms.

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