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Scholarly Impact of the Week: Megan MacKenzie

Please note: This feature presents sensitive themes that may be troubling to some readers. For support, please call the SFU Sexual Violence Support Office at 778.782.7233, email, or contact

Despite the global #MeToo and #TimesUp movements highlighting the impact of sexual violence, within many western militaries sexual violence is still a significant problem. There is a profound cost associated with sexual violence, and not just the deep and long-term impacts on the health, well-being and careers of victims. There is also cost for prevention, education, healthcare and legal settlements.

Megan MacKenzie is a professor of international studies and Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University (SFU). She is a world leading expert on gender and the military, and over the past decade her research has shaped the debate on gender integration and military culture. She has led groundbreaking international studies on military suicide, sexual violence and women in combat roles.

Professor Mackenzie’s recent book, Good Soldiers Don’t Rape: The Stories We Tell About Ourselves About Military Sexual Violence, published by Cambridge University Press, is the culmination of a landmark study that considers nearly 30 years of media coverage of military sexual violence in Canada, the United States and Australia. It provides insights into rape culture, how patriarchy operates more broadly and how to address, reduce and prevent sexual violence in the military.

We spoke to professor Mackenzie about her work.

At the very beginning of the book, you acknowledge how difficult it was to write at length and in depth about these themes. What were your reasons for writing this book?
Sexual misconduct impacts victims deeply. It causes multiple forms of physical harm and is also associated with long-term trauma. Military sexual violence not only remains a serious problem within most defence forces, but evidence shows that rates may be on the rise, despite increased attention and efforts to address it. To me, this means that we need to regroup and revisit how the issue is being talked about and what solutions are being tried to reduce it.

How prevalent is sexual violence in the military of the three countries studied? Is it more common in military settings than in other institutions?
It is very difficult to know the exact rates of military sexual violence (MSV). We know from anonymous survey data in multiple countries that most victims—about 80 per cent—do not report MSV. So, when national militaries release incident report numbers, they are certainly gross underestimations of the problem. That being said, available data shows that in Australia one in four service members will experience MSV. Between 2016 and 2018, the United States military saw a 38 per cent increase in cases of sexual assault.

And, in July 2019, the Canadian government announced that it would pay nearly $1 billion to members of the military who were part of a class action lawsuit claiming systemic and widespread sexual misconduct in the Canadian Defence Forces. Nearly 19,000 Canadian Armed Forces and Defence personnel submitted claims as part of this Canadian class action lawsuit. Other staggering statistics include that 79 per cent of U.S. women serving in the military since Vietnam reported experiences of sexual harassment.

What are some myths, and misconceptions about military sexual violence that have obstructed addressing and preventing it? What is meant by institutional gas-lighting?
I use the term ‘rape myth’ in my work to refer to stereotypes and false beliefs associated with all forms of sexual assault. Popular rape myths in the civilian context include “she was asking for it,” “good guys don’t commit rape,” and “women lie about being raped to ruin men’s reputations.” My work on MSV has found that there are rape myths unique to the military, including the following:

  • Sexual violence is a natural, if unfortunate, by-product of a military culture that requires tough, combat-ready “good” warriors. This is a different version of ‘boys will be boys’ and assumes ‘soldiers will be soldiers’ such that the unique work environment for soldiers means that MSV is inevitable.
  • Women who choose to join the military should know that sexual violence is a risk because men can’t be expected to control their urges, particularly in high-pressure situations. This myth blames the problem of MSV on women’s presence or inability to protect themselves.
  • Only military leaders know how to handle the problem of sexual violence. The public often misunderstands or overreacts to the unique nature of sexual violence within defence forces. This myth presents the problem as so unique that civilian insights and interventions cannot be useful.



Do you have recommendations or actions towards addressing this problem? Where do we go from here?
Yes, in my book I offer an entire chapter of recommendations, including media guidelines for how reporters should cover this issue. For governments and militaries, my first recommendation is to collect better data on this issue and to make that data transparent. For reporters, I recommend that when reporting on MSV, do not refer to the service record of the alleged perpetrator. This can contribute to ‘good guy syndrome’ whereby the public and possibly a jury becomes enamored with a service member’s contributions rather than the question of whether they committed MSV.

I also recommend that governments and military leaders and journalists do not use the term ‘zero tolerance.’ Over the last few decades, this term is often used in responses by these three groups to make it seem like cases are exceptional and out of the ordinary and to draw attention away from evidence that MSV has been systematic and consistent. There is no zero-tolerance policy in Canada, the U.S. or Australia and this language is rhetoric.


Professor MacKenzie’s book is available at the SFU Library and


SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week series does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the university, but those of the scholars. The timing of articles in the series is chosen weeks or months in advance, based on a published set of criteria. Any correspondence with university or world events at the time of publication is purely coincidental.

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