Men have run wars like, forever. They are bigger and stronger. Male chimpanzees are known to form bands that patrol the boundaries of their territories and beat the crap out of other male chimpanzees. So yes, of course, why would you consider that male control over national security issues, and political science in general, would not be natural?
I’ve written a couple of posts on gender in foreign policy that were turned down by male editors, and others have had similar experiences. I was reminded of this recently by someone who has gone through it again.
Of course it’s possible that these pieces just weren’t well-written, but the reasons they are turned down are oddly similar, and it seems to be mostly pieces about gender in foreign policy that get this treatment. The editorial objection is “What is it you are saying?” accompanied, later in the game, by “Why do you keep repeating this?” These are smart men, who one might think would detect their own self-contradictions.
I’ve also tweeted about gender in national security, and some Juicers have asked me to write a post. It will be a series of posts. Consider this one an introduction to the subject.
Carol Cohn was the pioneer who first noted in 1987 the male sexualization of discourse in nuclear security. She recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in response to Donald Trump’s tweet that his nuclear button was bigger and better than Kim Jong Un’s nuclear button.
I am trying to think back to 1987 and how we thought about such things then. I can’t tell if we have always thought about missiles as being phallic or if Cohn first made that idea explicit enough that we could discuss it. These things are so ingrained, so much a part of our thinking, that it’s hard to get outside the frame to talk about them. That’s what Cohn did.
I started thinking about this over three decades ago, when I was working among civilian nuclear strategists, war planners, weapons scientists and arms controllers. What struck me was how removed they were from the human realities behind the weapons they discussed. This distancing occurred in part through a professional discourse characterized by stunningly abstract and euphemistic language — and in part through a set of lively sexual metaphors.
The human bodies evoked were not those of the victims; instead, there were conversations about vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.”
Language limits what can be thought and argued. Let’s take “penetration at all levels,” which I know is not Adam’s wording and that in some of his work cannot be avoided, precisely the problem that Cohn outlines.
“Penetration” is of course something the male sex does. Penetration at all levels is a power fantasy and, pretty much, rape. It’s not something women can do. (I’m excepting sex toys; our minds aren’t subtle in these things.) It’s not even an accurate description of what Adam has been talking about, which is Russian influence and infiltration. Those two words would allow for greater understanding.
Sexualized discussions of national security can make people miss things. Negotiation is less likely to be the response to rape than violence. Negotiation is a reasonable option in a discussion about influence and infiltration. And the male-oriented sexuality keeps women out. It’s uncomfortable for them and makes what they say less believable to men.
For someone like Trump, seeing action as manly and negotiation as feminine can be dangerous to all of us. For military strategists, that sort of thinking limits the kinds of options they can consider. For the rest of us, it can make a difference in how we vote.
Much of this gendering of national security takes place below conscious thought. That is why an editor keeps asking what an article about gender and national security is about; he can’t see that his own thought might be conditioned by the gendered vocabulary of national security.
Valued commenter celticdragonchick reminded me of James Tiptree’s The Women Men Don’t See. Tiptree, of course, was Alice Bradley Sheldon. It’s another example of how language and privilege shape what you can see and understand.