Since the 1991 Tailhook convention many newspaper and magazine articles have been devoted to sexual harassment and women in the military. Some articles have described the details of various incidents of harassment, and considerable attention has been given to philosophical debate about the role of women in the armed forces. Little attention, however, has been given to combating harassment. How can we eliminate sexual harassment if we don’t discuss the problem openly and provide the troops with some useful guidance?
In the August 1992 Proceedings, Commander K. A. Krohne presented an extensive list of ways to deal with harassment. I found her article helpful for a commanding officer trying to establish a unit anti-harassment program. It provided little help, however, to junior officers or senior petty officers trying to get the message across to one of the many service members—men and women—who still “just don’t get it.” Here are some thoughts that can be used to drive the point home, down in the trenches:
- Harassment is in the eye of the beholder. What one person considers humorous or flirtatious may be offensive to another individual. Before speaking or acting, consider how your comments or actions could be perceived by others.
- Harassment also is in the eye of the service. The U.S. Coast Guard Commandant’s policy statement defines sexual harassment as “a form of gender discrimination that involves unwelcome sexual advances, solicitation of sexual favors, or other sexually oriented verbal or physical conduct.” That is a very broad definition. You may not consider your sexually oriented statements to be harassment but if they are unwelcome (by anyone, including an onlooking third party or an unseen senior), you could be in trouble.
- The victim does not have to press charges. Unlike our civil justice system, a commanding officer can discipline or charge a member with sexual harassment whether or not the harassed individual wants to file charges. If you engage in harassing behavior, don’t count on the silence of an intimidated victim to protect you from disciplinary action.
- “I was drinking ” is no excuse. Many men and women admit they say or do things when they are drunk that they wouldn’t do sober. Know yourself. If you become a harasser when you drink, then don’t drink. Seek help for alcohol problems now. Drunkenness is no excuse for unwelcome, sexually oriented conduct.
- Fighting harassment is not an individual concern. No service members being harassed should ever feel that they must deal with it on their own, even if that harassment takes place off duty. You must take responsibility for your own life, but that doesn’t preclude you from seeking help from your supervisors to deal with this type of problem.
- The armed forces are not men's clubs. All rates and programs of the Coast Guard are open to individuals of both sexes. Service policy and law dictate that women have as much right as men to be in the service (regardless of anyone’s personal opinion to the contrary). Women must not be made to feel that they must endure harassing behavior just because men were in the service first.
In the past, women in our nation’s other armed forces have not been as fortunate to have the full range of jobs open to them as in the Coast Guard, but that is changing. Too much male energy seems to have been directed toward resisting this trend. That same energy could be redirected towards smoothing the way for increased female participation. The question is simple:
Do you want to move ahead with the service, or be pushed aside because you’ve continued to try to slow progress?
- Environment affects the ways one person reacts to another's behavior. In small units, at isolated duty stations, and on extended ship deployments, people are forced to work and socialize more closely than in many other staff situations. Be aware that off-color actions or comments shrugged off by someone in an 8-to-4 job may become offensive when made in close quarters during an extended workday.
- Nip harassment in the bud. Jokes or gestures that are inappropriate but relatively harmless, if not stopped right away, may lead to still more offensive behavior. If someone’s actions or comments make you uncomfortable, let them know. Ask a co-worker, friend, supervisor, or the Command Enlisted Adviser to help you explain your feelings to that individual. Don’t wait, hoping the problem will go away. Chances are, it will get worse.
- Education and communication are vital in combating harassment. Not all harassing behavior is intentional; a lot of it may stem from ignorance. Women must educate men about their feelings; men must educate women about their perceptions. Talk to each other. Break down barriers of misunderstanding.
Combating sexual harassment requires moral courage. Harassed individuals must be ready to speak up. Onlookers must have the courage to stop harassers, counsel them, reprimand them, and, if necessary, report them. Officers and senior petty officers must have the courage to reexamine their own definition of sexual harassment, get a better handle on the relationships between their subordinates, and set a proactive example of heightened awareness about this problem.
Commander Sturm is the executive officer of Marine Safety Office, Milwaukee, WI. He graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1979.