Rosalind Chait Barnett and Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–A recent report in the British medical journal Lancet offers evidence that doctors, nurses and other medical personnel at Abu Ghraib prison assisted in–or remained silent in the face of–abuse of prisoners at the Iraqi jail.

The revelation helps deflate high-flown ideas about categories of people–namely in this case, doctors and women–being any more virtuous than others.

After the prison-abuse scandal, many people wondered how women could be involved in such vile acts. Isn’t the softer sex supposed to be the civilizer of men, not their companion in torture?

Three of the seven reservists from the 372d Military Police Company who face criminal charges in alleged assaults, indecent acts, cruelty, and conspiracy are women: Specialist Sabrina D. Harman, 26, of Lorton, Va; Specialist Megan Ambuhl, 29, of Centreville, Va.; and private first class Lynndie England, 21, of Fort Ashby, W.Va.

England has become the face of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Now under questioning at an army hearing, she was pictured in a notorious photograph, holding a naked Iraqi prisoner by a dog leash, leading him around on all fours.

Behavior Caused by Situation, Not Sex

That image, and now this news about medical personnel, helps underline a basic research finding about human behavior: that our actions are often caused more by the situations in which we find ourselves than by our sex, or even, in the case of doctors, by a solemn oath to do no harm.

The culture of the institutions, in particular, has a profound affect on our behavior and thinking. And given this, we really shouldn’t be surprised that women took part in abusive actions that were somehow seen as "OK" by their colleagues and commanding officers.

"The abuse of power is a human thing, not just a male thing," says Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who studies gender issues in the military at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, a Washington think tank. "Like immature men, immature women and those at Abu Ghraib who were very junior and had no training, no qualifications and rotten oversight are very likely to abuse unlimited power when it is handed to them."

Mistaken Notions of Deviance

For those who believe that caring for others is women’s biological and psychological imperative, the prison-abuse images seem incomprehensible. After all, women are often getting the message that they should be the relational sex, the ones to put the needs of others before their own. Caring should be the core of their feminine identity. By this yardstick, the women at Abu Ghraib must be deviant, very much different than most women.

But they are not. In fact, women have the same capacity for aggression and violence as men. If this sounds "wrong," that’s because women’s aggression it is not often public. Women often feel compelled to mask their aggressive behavior, especially when they know they are being watched.

Two major meta-analyses of over 206 published research studies found that men were somewhat more aggressive. However, the sex differences were not large and were inconsistent across the studies. Overall, sex differences in aggression depend on a host of factors: the situation, the perceived consequences of the aggression and the extent to which the aggression is public versus private.

What happens, however, when these cultural prohibitions are "turned off?" Especially, what happens to females when they think nobody’s watching?

One particularly well-designed study of over 200 college students produced very strong and significant findings. The study, which was conducted by two Princeton psychologists, sheds some light on this question. In it, college students–male and female–were asked to play a computer game with an unknown partner in which the object was to bomb the "enemy" and to be bombed in return.

Which sex was more bloodthirsty? The answer depended less on gender than on whether the players were being watched. When the investigators could identify the players, women dropped significantly fewer bombs than the men.

But when the women thought they were anonymous, they bombed their opponents back to the Stone Age, in military lingo. They were significantly more aggressive than were the male students. However, when they were asked after the experiment to say how aggressive they had been, the women claimed to have been far less aggressive than the men, even though the opposite was the case. Scrutiny was a much better predictor of aggression than was gender.

Beyond Lab Experiments

But, of course, we don’t need laboratory studies to convince ourselves of female aggression.

Today, with many social constraints loosening, women’s behavior is changing. Not only are women riding motorcycles, playing contact sports, they are serving as police officers and wrestling felons to the ground.

Women are also engaging in substantially more criminal behavior than in the past. Statistics from across the globe show a marked rise in violent crime by women. From l990 to 1999, arrest records for U.S. girls rose by a whopping 57 percent.

In New York City, arrests of girls for violent crime jumped 58 percent in one decade, between 1987 and 1997. "We used to marvel when one girl was referred to us," said Nina Jody, chief prosecutor for Manhattan Family Court. "Now, it’s like ladies’ day around here. There are many days when half the cases are girls. In the last two years, girls have become the main actors in assaults, robberies and even gang assaults. They are out on the street at 2 a.m., riding the subways, doing everything boys are doing."

And of course, women in the past also engaged in extreme brutality. Female guards in Nazi concentration camps, for instance, were known to be vicious and women have often supported males in outbursts of ethnic cleansing.

The myth of the always-nurturing female may be hard for women to give up, because they’ve sometimes used it to their advantage. Suffragists argued that women should have the vote to make society better and some women have argued that women will ennoble the institutions they enter.

But women bring all sorts of capabilities and inclinations to the table. As do men. The helicopter pilot in Vietnam who trained his guns on his own troops to prevent more slaughter at My Lai behaved very differently from most of his male comrades. Men and women are individuals and we can’t make blanket statements about either sex.

Too often, our need to have a consistent view of the world leads us to quickly dismiss as aberrant any behavior by women that doesn’t fit the pervasive myth of the all-caring female.

This can actually work to the detriment of women as a group by leading society to punish women more harshly when the display "unfeminine" behavior more tolerated in men.

It’s only when we realize that men and women have the same capacities that we can look reality in the face. Women don’t civilize men, nor do they humanize the military. To see women as always personifying the better angels of our nature is to wear blinders. Women are human beings, subject to our baser–as well as our better–instincts.

Dr. Rosalind Chait Barnett of Brandeis and Caryl Rivers of Boston University are the authors of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs" (Basic Books).

For more information:

Brandeis University–Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs: