| Sex, risk, and the soldier

Two studies explore the sexual attitudes and decisions of military personnel

Traditionally all-boys clubs, militaries today are open to both men and women. In Canada, women now make up over 15 per cent of the armed forces. Despite equal access and gender integration into the military, the normalcy of sexually risky behaviour still persists today. Academic studies have found army personnel to engage in unsafe sexual practices, particularly sex without condoms, despite awareness of the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Paul Whitehead, a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, helped write “Explaining Unsafe Sexual Behaviour: Cultural Definitions and Health in the Military,” a 1999 study on sexual identity and health in the Canadian military. The study concluded that condom use in the military was very consistent when engaging in sexual relations with a sex worker, but inconsistent with people not seen as sex workers.

“Condoms are, among the military people I spoke with, associated with sex with a prostitute and so whenever they had sex with a prostitute they always used condoms,” explained Whitehead in a phone interview with The Daily. “It was when they had sex with people they didn’t consider to be prostitutes, when there was affect in the relationship, that condom use was inconsistent.”

Whitehead noted in his study that educational programs have sought to increase awareness of the danger of AIDS and the need for safe sex. However, these programs primarily focus on making personnel aware of the high rates of HIV infection among sex workers in certain countries and ports as well as encouraging condom use as a protection against STI infection.

Free condoms, risky choices
The military also emphasizes the need for sexual health education. “Safer sex should be discussed and promoted during basic recruit training; pre-deployment health briefings; health briefings for leisure travel…discussion with a member believed to be at a higher risk of STI; and any other collective general health briefings,” wrote a Canadian Forces (CF) Health Services spokesperson in an email.

She added that, “condoms are to be readily available, without needing to ask a health care professional,” and that, “the CF Health Services is one of the few health jurisdictions that provides, at public expense, the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV) to its female members of applicable age (up to 26 years).” Yet despite the publicized risks and resources offered, military personnel were found to still engage in unsafe sexual behaviour.

Even though condoms are available to members of the Canadian military, Whitehead posited that service members often consciously chose not to use them when engaging in sexual relations with someone who they did not see as a sex worker, for example a partner with whom they have an emotional relationship.

“Condoms make it possible to have casual sexual relationships – then the condoms disappear when [affection] comes in [to the relationship],” Whitehead explained. “But the point is that it happens without people getting tested. [They] don’t get tested unless they think they’ve contracted something.”

New generation, new risks
Although the army has an anecdotal history of being a sexually permissive environment, attitudes have changed gradually through the generations.

“I spoke with older military personnel, not those that I interviewed, and they told me about the practice of buying one’s way out of a condom, i.e. offering more money [to a sex worker] for sex without a condom,” said Whitehead. “When I mentioned this to the young guys [I was interviewing] they couldn’t believe that anyone would think of doing that.” In this instance it is obvious that there has been a generational shift in how men in the army view sex with sex workers. However, practicing safe sex with long-term sexual partners is still something Whitehead believes needs to be encouraged.

The CF Health Services did not care to speculate on the issue of whether the army is a sexually permissive environment. “We are not aware of any particular scientific evidence that members of the Canadian Forces are more or less likely to engage in and/or accept sexually risky behaviour than a comparison civilian group with similar characteristics, e.g. age, sex, education, income,” the spokesperson continued. “To us the more important issue is to try, through the available modalities, to reduce the risk for transmission of STIs among CF members and their sexual partners.”

Looking outwards
In other countries, military attitudes toward safe sex differ significantly from those in Canada. In the Caribbean armies sociologist Michael Anastario studies, many soldiers want to practice safer sex, but are limited by material shortages. “There is huge interest in the field for having condoms, [but developing Caribbean countries] might be experiencing a shortage [of condoms] and that affects the military,” Anastario explained. “There is a lack of resource and personnel, which are problems in any developing country.”

Anastario is the Director of Research and Evaluation at Cicatelli Associates, a non-profit American educational organization. His studies of Caribbean armies specifically focus on a correlation between sexually risky behaviour and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While this correlation is still being developed statistically, Anastario strongly believes there is a distinct connection. “In [my study ‘Correlates of Sexual Risk Behavior in Sexually Active Male Military Personnel Stationed Along Border-Crossing Zones in the Dominican Republic,’ published April 2010] PTSD was prevalent, and related statistically to sexual risk behaviour,” Anastario stated in a phone interview with The Daily.

“[We are] starting to find associations where people with PTSD have a different relationship with risk perception [than normal]. The more they perceive themselves at risk, the more likely they are to engage in sexually risky behaviour,” he said. This inverse reaction to risk perception may be the result of PTSD. According to Anastario, “soldiers develop PTSD and don’t see HIV as a risk anymore, [because they] could die from something else tomorrow.”

While Anastario focused solely on men in his study, he did discuss women in the military briefly, and conceded that they too engage in sexual-risk behaviour, but the mechanisms through which they engage are markedly different. “[There is] a lack of communication especially in regard to protection of reproductive rights,” explained Anastario. “Women are not confident enough to address their partner [about safe sex]. [It is] a male decision to stop using condoms, without consulting the female partner.”

Though the problems facing both these contexts are systemic, research both new and old promises to illuminate potential solutions and suggests positive changes to attitudes toward sex – whatever the situation, sexual risk must continue to take into account the realities of permissive behavior.