Sexual harassment in the military is fairly common, but its exact incidence among American forces is impossible to determine because so many cases are never reported. First-hand reports from some service members suggest that the problem is epidemic in nature. Others, however, report that the problem rarely occurs in their units. These latter reports usually reference “no tolerance” policies in their units and leaders who take the policy seriously.
Sexual harassment is a problem that occurs throughout society, but most commonly within organized settings; a person is more likely to be sexually harassed by someone at work or school than by a neighbor. In most cases, the harasser takes advantage of an inequality in the power relationship he has with the victim. For example, sexual harassment in the workplace frequently involves a supervisor harassing a subordinate. The military, with its strict hierarchies of rank, is an ideal breeding ground for sexual harassment. Nevertheless, it’s understood that sexual harassment in the military is a problem not only for the victim, but for the military itself, because sexual harassment destroys the trust and commitment the military works so hard to instill in its members.
As in civilian life, sexual harassment in the military takes many different forms. The most common is the harassment of women by men, but there are instances of women harassing men. A smaller percentage of sexual harassment cases involve men harassing other men, or women harassing other women.
When it takes place in the civilian world in most Western countries, sexual harassment sometimes constitutes a criminal act and can be prosecuted. More commonly, though, the law enjoins employers from permitting sexual harassment in their workplaces, and requires them to respond seriously to charges brought by their employees. If a complaining employee is dissatisfied with her employer’s response, a number of options are available to her, including filing a lawsuit, all of which would expose the employer to embarrassment, as well as significant cost. Academic institutions likewise establish and enforce strict policies on sexual harassment.
Such civilian alternatives aren’t available to victims of sexual harassment in the military, however. There is no third party to whom a victim can turn for justice if the prescribed procedure for handling sexual harassment complaints yields unsatisfactory results. In many cases, the victim may become the focus of unwanted attention and investigation. Although it’s prohibited by American military policy, victims who complain about sexual harassment sometimes find themselves retaliated against in some units.
There are other reports, though, from women who insist that sexual harassment is no longer a problem in their units. More to the point, they explain that there’s a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment in the military, and that it’s strictly enforced by their chain of command. The difference, clearly, is the chain of command. In those units whose commanders have themselves endorsed the zero tolerance policy, the troops quickly learn that they’re serious, and will generally modify their behavior accordingly. Where commanders give lip service only to the zero tolerance policy, their lack of real commitment is quickly understood by those under their command.
The Department of Defense recognizes the threat sexual harassment in the military poses for the integrity of the military itself, and is committed to ending it. In addition to the zero tolerance policy, commanders who sexually harass those under their command can count on harsh treatment, as can those who are found to have permitted it within their commands, even if they themselves didn’t take part.