Does Having More Women in the Security Sector Make a Difference? On Sex and the Secret Service

The recent Secret Service scandal has gotten many people – from political operatives to Congresswomen – calling for the inclusion of more women in the Secret Service and other such security forces.

What never fails to amaze me in the aftermath of such issues is how verbal and public so many men are with their sexism.  One need only browse the comment threads on a recent CNN article and the Yahoo News report (just to take two examples) to see it in action.  Let’s just take a look:

“Can you just see a cat fight on the rear bumper of the Presidential Limo. Just watch the ladys on Trump’s Apprentice to see how well women work together”

“All it would mean is that the prostitutes would be out of business and the male SS would simply seduce the willing female SS.  Their morals are no different”

“As someone who has been in combat and has seen women drop their weapons and run away, I’d have to say bad idea.”

“Yes, more women in the Secret Service! Then we can have sexual harassment scandals instead of prostitution scandals. Gotta keep it all in the company.”

As I said, the blatant sexism of such people never ceases to amaze me.  And so if you have a minute, please do as I have and reply to their comments or add your own.  Right now, the vast majority of the responses look like the above ones, and we cannot allow the general public to take such statements as a reasonable assessment of the situation.

But the question itself is an important one: would having more women in the Secret Service have prevented this scandal?

The Secret Service isn’t the only place we need to be asking ourselves this question.  In 2000, the United Nations passed Resolution 1325, which recognized the unique role women have to play in the peace and security of their communities.  One reason this resolution had to be considered in the first place is because the numbers themselves are so illustrative about the appalling lack of female representation in the security sector – this includes everything from peacekeeping forces to defense contractors to military to police and yes, protective entities like the U.S. Secret Service.

In the U.S. Secret Service, women make up about 25% of the agency’s workforce, but only about 11% of agents and uniformed officers. When we move beyond the Secret Service and look at other types of security forces, the numbers are no better.  Internationally, women currently comprise 2.35% of all UN peacekeeping troops.  Even in national police forces, defense industries, and other armed forces, the players are overwhelmingly male.  And so the introduction of women into the security apparatus, whether it be local, national, or international, is a relatively recent movement, and its impact is still being assessed.

With regards to sex scandals, I don’t care what political party you’re from or what gender you ascribe to – groups of women are not culturally trained and encouraged to engage in these activities in the same way that groups of men are. If you view engaging with prostitutes as something the Secret Service shouldn’t be involved in while traveling abroad on the taxpayers’ business, then you have to agree that in general, women do not do such things.

Women do not go to brothels together at the end of a long day.  Women do not get offered prostitutes when they check into certain hotels, because the hospitality industry in many parts of the world views having a human being available for your sexual gratification to be part of their business.  Women are not the market for the special sex tours that are sold to tourists around the globe, and with the exception of the rare “Madam,” women do not kidnap, rape, and sexually abuse young boys and girls and then pimp them out to the highest bidder.

In essence, there is not a culture built around the sexual exploitation of men by women.

Am I saying women never do these things?  No, of course not.  But that is very different from equating the rates at which men buy sex to the rates at which women do it.

And so at the very least, we all need to acknowledge that groups of women do not engage in these activities the way groups of men do.  It’s just one reason that sexual violence, prostitution, and sex trafficking seem to follow men with guns.

For example, the arrival of UN forces (almost exclusively male) frequently leads to increased sex trafficking and violence against women.  In Haiti, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, all of which accepted varying numbers of overwhelmingly male international peacekeeping forces in the aftermath of conflict, sex trafficking and prostitution levels increased accordingly.   Conversely, other countries such as Nepal that have seen similar post-conflict or unstable conditions, but where international peacekeeping troops were not deployed, have not seen statistically significant increases in sex trafficking or prostitution rings.

However, the question of whether having more women present would have prevented, or stopped, such things from happening is far less clear.

There isn’t much evidence to draw upon.  However, one of the challenges we will encounter repeatedly is the indisputable fact that not all women are the same.  Especially when it comes to looking at ways to prevent such sexual escapades from happening in the first place, many women simply do not want to be seen as the “matriarch” of their security force, being pressured into policing the sexual activities of their coworkers.  And why should they have to be?  They didn’t join the Secret Service – or any other security force for that matter – in order to be the sex police or the morality police or whatever else you may want to call it.

Making deductions based on individual anecdotes (since there are so few case studies) about women’s ability to install their peaceful, compassionate, ethically and morally superior selves into the big bad macho culture is what is referred to as an Essentialist framing of gender roles. Essentialism is  the act of mobilizing people on the basis of who they are, and the views and preferences they are assumed to hold because of who they are.

Were we to seek more women in the ranks of the Secret Service – or any sector for that matter – we would be claiming that women are expected to be one way and to fit into one role that we ascribe for them in accordance with the expectations of their gender.  This argument focuses on who they are, not what they do. In other words, this theory assumes that all women will fit the definition of “womanhood,” which in this case, means being ethically and morally superior – certainly not anyone who would hire prostitutes in a foreign country.

Can the wide breadth and range of half the world’s population be reduced to such stereotypes? One’s identity does not hinge on gender alone – sex, class, education, socio-economic status, culture, religion, language, and so many others all contribute to a person’s identity, and limiting one’s examination of a demographic’s “group impact” on a potential position within a force like the Secret Service  is much too narrow about which to make definitive statements.  So how can one know which identity will be the dominant one?

Even beyond that, the truth is that we cannot assume that women – even supposing they all did have such naturally superior ethics – will change the culture around them instead of being changed by the culture around them. In other words, there is no reason to expect that the system will adapt to them instead of the other way around.  Some evidence has shown that especially in such individual anecdotes as we have for women’s participation in security forces, the women end up conforming to the more traditional masculine roles just to fit in.

So in fact, these women may just as easily adopt the behavior of the dominant culture, wanting to be ‘one of the boys’ and shrugging off the responsibility of representing their supposedly more caring, morally superior, gender.  And so would having more women involved in the Secret Service, peacekeeping missions, and other such entities prevent such things?


In other security-related forces, the inclusion of more women has had positive results, not just in dealing with issues of sexual violence or sexual misconduct, but also in terms of broader operational effectiveness.  This just goes back to the same argument about diversity that feminists have been making for a long time – it’s not that we’re special.  It’s that we have different skills and abilities and you shouldn’t be dismissing the benefits of diverse viewpoints and experiences.

So there you have the dilemma – as feminists, we are hesitant to claim that all women are one way or another.  That said, we have evidence that women’s behavior as a group is different from men’s, often in ways that would lead to different outcomes.

How do we reconcile these?

The key is not, as some have claimed, to simply have more women involved.  Such a solution is overly simplistic and quite dangerous in the broader movement for gender equality.

Instead, we need to both train the men better and implement more gender-sensitivity in our operations.  Evidence shows that gains cannot be examined in a vacuum, and we cannot simply add more women to the mix and hope that does the trick.  (For more on this topic as it relates more specifically to international peacekeeping, see Harvard Professor Sahana Dharmapuri’s article, “Just Add Women And Stir”).  This is where a more comprehensive approach comes in.

One country that has seen demonstrable success at incorporating gender-sensitive policies into its security reform is Sweden.  The establishment of “Genderforce Sweden” facilitated a partnership of a range of Swedish groups focusing not only on increasing female participation in security forces, but also on incorporating  gender sensitivity into the security training, strategy, and operations.  It has initiated programs to increase female recruitment, identify concrete areas of improvement within the government, forming a network of military and civilian actors to foster collaboration and joint action, empowering local women, and trainings in recognizing and combating human trafficking.  So as they were building up and investing in ways to increase the number of women in the security forces, they were simultaneously instituting gender-sensitive policies and trainings.

In Nicaragua, an initiative in the 1990s increased the number of women-only police stations, strengthened transparency for promotion requirements, implemented family-friendly policies, and offered training modules on gender-based violence in the police academies themselves.  By 2008, 26% of police officers were women, which is the highest proportion of female police officers in the world.  The increase in female police officers and the reforms in the Nicaraguan security force is largely credited with helping the police gain the trust of the general public.  As a result, the Nicaraguan public now ranks the police force far ahead of the Catholic Church in terms of legitimacy.

Additionally, while women’s participation in security forces themselves is low, once countries implement plans to promote women’s participation, they also frequently recruit more women into their security forces.  For example, after women were deployed to Liberia to serve as security personnel, particularly in guarding and protecting Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the female Head of State – the number of women who applied to join the national Liberian police force increased by 30%.

Would having an all-female U.S. Secret Service, or even more women in general in our Secret Service, lead to more women entering security-related fields in the U.S.?  Perhaps.  The more women you have, the more women you will get.

The reports of the activities of these Secret Service agents make me feel sick in the same way I always feel when I hear about men of power and privilege paying women who lack both for sex.

Objectively, is there anything morally wrong with trading sex for money?  That question is more complicated.

But in this world, there are too many power relations at play, too many women who are forced into prostitution by economic need, too much violence associated with the industry, and too much sexual exploitation that accompanies it, for me to brush this off.  Not to mention that these men were on foreign soil representing my country and supposedly focusing their energies on security operations intended to protect my President.

Having more women in our security forces is beneficial – for the increase in our operational efficiency, the value of diversity in experience and identity, and in order to grant women the same opportunities that we currently provide men.

But assuming women will all conform to an idealized standard of morality, expecting them to exert specific types of influence over men, and promoting their inclusion at the expense of integrating gender-sensitivity and appropriate standards of behavior in our security forces will never bring about the changes we need.


Photo credit The Last Reel
Photo credit Stephen Morton via The New York Times
Photo credit World Defense Network

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  • R.Paul spent my Thanksgiving bleeding, I spent Christmas bleeding, I spent my New Year bleeding, I spent my Birthday bleeding … because of rapist Ken KasowitzI spent my Thanksgiving bleeding, I spent Christmas bleeding, I spent my New Year bleeding, I spent my Birthday bleeding … because of this trauma To Me, he is a rapist & a … My abuser’s name is Ken Kasowitz; I don’t know how he is related to optionetics. He keeps grabbing at my clothes and my private parts both in public & in private & last june, in addition to sexual harassment, he had his fist on my face & forced me to look into his eyes. My body responds to trauma in a very specific manner; I bleed non-stop & this has happened both times. I purchased a lot of their classes. Every time I attend a class the instructors harass me. I got sexually assaulted twice (2006 and 2011) at their OASIS & the instructors keep gossiping about my personal issues both in class, in my presence & in my absence outside of class. Recently, an instructor, Nick Gazzolo, discussed me in class with his students, he refused to answer my questions; & when I went to Oasis (their super summit), sent my abuser to assault me again. He & the others discuss me with my abuser all the time. Due to this assault my body is traumatized.

  • Claravaz1

    I couldn’t agree with this more Abigail. As someone who has worked in building peacebuilding policies for the UN peacebuilding unit with a concentration on integrating gender into different realms of politics/economy/policing, you hit the nail on the head. And it is one area in which we flounder, time and time again, to see exactly what the outcomes are. In one case, a minister had appointed female members of his family (very wealthy) into cabinet. There, he said, that fills our quota. And yet the women did nothing – mere token representations, fully enjoying the privileges that came with their new positions. Shaking and stirring does nothing. Early training and continued monitoring and reporting is definitely a solution, one that applies to most programs involving women. Unfortunately gender mainstreaming is still in it’s infancy stages and we seem to remain content at just having it there without a clue as to how its working.