#MeToo And Sexual Violence In The U. S. Fire Service

10/18/2017 03:51 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2017
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Litza De Jesus puts on protective gear prior to a rescue exercise, March 11, 2014, at the Wil
U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD PHOTO BY TECH. SGT. MATT HECHT/RELEASED
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Litza De Jesus puts on protective gear prior to a rescue exercise, March 11, 2014, at the William J. Hughes Technical Center, N.J. De Jesus is a fire protection specialist from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing.

Co-authored with Sarah Diefendorf

The #MeToo campaign has brought to the fore previously shrouded incidents of sexual violence. A significant corpus of qualitative and legal data, coupled with unsystematic studies, reveal an alarming number of allegations of sexual violence in the U.S. fire service. While not well documented, these cases have garnered press in the New York Times and Washington Post. Yet, no systematic analysis of sexual violence and harassment in the U.S. fire service has been completed. This is not surprising given the distributed nature of firehouses –there is no national governing body which can mandate studies or dictate terms to local firehouses, many of which (in rural areas) are voluntary. As well, most city firehouses report directly to the city mayors, who may have limited incentives for investigating sexual violence claims and potentially uncovering a scandal.

Research on sexual violence in the fire service is only just beginning, but research on closely related service careers (the US military) lends credence to these alarming reports. Statistics show between 19% of female servicewomen and 2% of male servicemen experience sexual violence, with between 15-20,000 sexual assaults reported each year. These reported assaults are widely considered to be an underestimate.

Significant qualitative evidence points to a similar yet unexamined pattern in the U.S. fire service. Anecdotal evidence from female members of city fire departments and wildland fire crews around the U.S. (and Canada and Australia, to name a few) consistently report sexual discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence. While not systematic, preliminary polls run by concerned fire chiefs and members of the fire community, as well as one peer reviewed study using focus groups, back up these claims, and personal accounts indicate firefighting is an arena wherediscrimination and sexual violence are comparatively unchecked.

Indeed, female firefighters in these qualitative accounts state sexual harassment is the primary factor determining women’s low level of participation in the fire service “… there was a lieutenant that kept touching me and he finally slapped my butt," a female firefighter of five years said. “The chief told me, 'Oh, he's just joking. You got to learn to deal with that.’ That was the answer for everything.”

The physical demands of the fire service are incredible and often associated with a hyper-masculine culture closely resembling the “boys club” of the military; indeed members tend to switch between each service. Research demonstrates women’s participation in traditionally male-dominated occupations, such as firefighting or the military, do not wreak devastation on readiness or outcomes, even in physically demanding positions. Similar to the military, all men and women must meet the same physical standards to be eligible for both wildland and structure firefighting positions.

As Megan MacKenzie puts it when speaking about women soldiers: “the most persistent of these myths—that women are physically unfit for the demands of war, that the public cannot tolerate female casualties, and that female soldiers limit the cohesion of troops in combat—have been rigorously dismantled by scholars and female soldiers alike in recent years.”

Fire Engineering and individual fire chiefs have noted women’s presence on a fire crew can enhance problem-solving, improve collaboration, and improve community outreach. Further, given the rise in city fire departments’ responses to medical emergencies, one chief noted women firefighters are better able to relate to women survivors, particularly survivors of domestic violence. Women are integral members of the fire service, yet face damaging stereotypes and assumptions of their worth, workplace discrimination and assault. Regardless of what individuals do or do not add to an occupation, sexual harassment and violence are unacceptable.

Rates of harassment in any organization will not suddenly disappear if firehouses hire more women. As David Hollenbach writes: “Women are capable of performing the job requirements of a firefighter, and departments are capable of hiring women in increased numbers. However, hiring qualified women in increased numbers is not enough to perpetuate a meaningful change in the culture. If women are not accepted as members of the group, their success in the organization is often derailed by harassment ... For female firefighters to experience success to the same degree and with the same effort as male firefighters, the respective fire department must have a culture that is inclusive to women.”

What does such an “inclusive” culture look like? Research demonstrates rape and sexual violence are not an inevitable part of human nature, and discrimination, harassment and sexual violence are a cultural phenomenon. Consequently, with the right approach, this is a preventable problem. Sociologists CJ Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander describe “rape culture” as a culture in which rape is simultaneously abhorred but common. Rape culture finds much of its foundation in “symbolic” sexual violence: jokes and lewd comments about rape and assault.

Even comments or actions that are not explicitly sexual (e.g., complimenting a woman’s appearance or demeanor in a work context instead of her qualifications or skills) result in an attitude where sexual violence is more permissible. Men can joke about sexual violence and thus demean women. But simultaneously, these men distance themselves from “those other men” who rape, by claiming they would “never do a thing like that,” even while their words sustain the very culture that enables discrimination, harassment and rape.

Indeed, studies show that fraternities in which rape culture is emboldened are those in which rape is also frequent. Likewise, military organizations that empower women may be less likely to perpetrate rape against other groups.

How can the relationship between the “band of brothers” culture and sexual discrimination, harassment and violence be changed? These changes require leadership from people in positions of power (read: men).

Jackson Katz, a consultant on these issues for the U.S. Marine Corps, argues men in positions of power need to take the lead on changing the culture around these issues and argues sexual harassment and violence are, in fact, “men’s issues.” He states men in leadership positions need to consider this an integral part of their leadership approach rather than relegating it to “sensitivity” or “diversity” training. He argues we need a non-bystander culture and leadership, in which men and boys who harass women lose status rather than become valorized for their misogyny.

Teams of individuals, whether fighting wildfires or sharing an office, will be stronger for serving all of its members. #MeToo provides a stark backdrop to these stories, which should be taken seriously.

Emily Kalah Gade, Ph.D., is a research scientist in the Department of Political Science and a WRF & Moore/Sloan Innovation in Data Science postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter: @ekgade

Sarah Diefendorf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her research investigates constructions of gender and sexuality in evangelical communities. Follow her on Twitter:@sarahdief

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