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Preventing Sexual Harassment and Assault

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Whenever men and women live and work together, as they do in the military, feelings of sexual attraction may arise. But sexual interaction isn’t always about satisfying sexual urges. Forcing sexual attention on someone who is unwilling can be about wanting to feel in charge or about feeling important. It might be about feeling powerful—especially true when a superior officer “flirts” or demands sexual contact with a lower-ranking service member.

Using greater strength or higher rank to force unwanted attention or sexual interaction on a fellow service member is unfair. And like all types of sexual discrimination, it is illegal. It violates standards of honesty and integrity that are an important part of the code for all branches of the armed forces. It interferes with work morale and productivity. And, if reported and pursued, it may be a source of potentially serious problems for someone’s military career.

Sexual harassment is unfortunately common in all branches of the armed forces. According to a Defense Manpower Data Center report, 50 to 75 percent of all women in the military have reported experiencing sexual harassment. Male and female service members experience the same frustrations and temptations as all men and women do when they work closely together. And as members of the military, they’ll have other times—like battle or disaster—when stress is extreme and temptation is even greater.

Understanding what behavior constitutes harassment is an essential first step in preventing it and in minimizing the frequency of assault. The information in this article can help service members evaluate their attitudes, understand where those attitudes might come from, and learn to substitute more appropriate thoughts and behaviors.

Sexual Harassment

There are two types of sexual harassment:

Quid Pro Quo: Placing conditions on a person’s career or terms of employment in return for sexual favors. It involves the threat of unfavorable action if the person doesn’t submit, and/or the promise of favorable action if the person does submit.

Hostile Environment: Subjecting a person to sexual comments or behaviors that interfere with that person’s work performance or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. It does not necessarily involve physical contact.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is a crime punishable by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It refers specifically to rape, forcible sodomy, indecent assault, or carnal knowledge as defined by the UCMJ, and it must involve physical contact.

The Role of Alcohol

Military life can be very stressful, and it’s not unusual for service members to turn to alcohol for relaxation. But overuse of alcohol is a major contributor to offenses against respectful behaviors and sexual interactions. The military believes the best way to eliminate sexual harassment and other unprofessional behavior is by changing the behaviors that can lead to such actions and crimes. That’s why each branch of the armed forces has programs that focus on helping service members find healthy alternatives to drinking and to using alcohol to excess. Look over your branch’s policies and standards regarding alcohol use.

Remember, alcohol affects your ability to control your reactions. Too often, being out of control leads to inappropriate and illegal behaviors regarding sexual harassment, sexual assault, and fraternization.

What Servicewomen Face

Many aspects of society still take the view that women are actually inferior and so it is okay to treat them as inferior. Little wonder, then, that the “warrior mentality” of the military can lead many servicemen to believe that women don’t belong. Sexual harassment is a typical expression of this belief, and it often starts early in a woman’s military experience. According to one report, two-thirds of female students at West Point said they’d been told at least twice a month that standards had been lowered for women or that women didn’t belong there.

In addition, women are legally restricted from being assigned to certain duties and so they constitute only about 1 in 10 of all military personnel—a ratio that in itself encourages an atmosphere hostile to women. Combine this with the fact that servicewomen are working in a nontraditional field and nearly universally have male supervisors, and you get the same results in the military as in the greater society. Sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, becomes disappointingly commonplace.

During War and Disaster

Disaster and war can create chaotic environments that make sexual violence more likely to occur. Those situations make basic resources hard to find—resources like safe housing, transportation, access to information, supportive friends and family, police protection, communications, and health care.

The chaos of disaster and war also makes it easier to victimize others. Knowing that during disaster police forces, ambulances, and other medical resources may be too busy to respond, it’s easier to think “I can get away with it.” When victims have little hope of being rescued, they seldom report sexual violence, and fewer criminals are caught or punished.

Women, children, older people, those living in poverty, and those with disabilities are groups that are typically more vulnerable to sexual violence. They become even more so during a disaster. For anyone who already believes that certain groups of people are less deserving, it can be even more tempting to sexually harass or assault members of those groups, especially in a war or other dangerous situation. Regardless of whether or not people are caught, they are committing a crime if they sexually assault another person.

 Knowing When to Stop

The best clue to whether behavior is sexual harassment is to watch the other person involved. If a woman seems uncomfortable or hurt by something you’ve said or by your actions or gestures, stop immediately. Do not assume what you’re doing is okay. Even if the other person doesn’t actually say anything—and there may be many reasons a person feels unable to respond—it’s safest to simply stop what you are doing.

Sexual assault is a crime. It also involves two or more people, and it only takes one of the parties to bring charges. Keep these facts in mind:

  • You must have consent from your partner before you engage in sexual activity. A person who has passed out or is unconscious or asleep (whether from alcohol, drugs, or fatigue) cannot legally give consent.
  • The age of consent varies by state; in some states, it is as old as eighteen. Know the law in your state, and make sure a potential sexual partner is old enough to legally give consent for sexual activity.
  • Many dangerous situations arise when people don’t communicate their expectations to a potential partner, and such situations can threaten your military career. If you’re not sure how your partner feels about your actions, ask.
  • Alcohol and drugs can affect your memory and your partner’s memory of events, so avoid using drugs and or drinking to excess.
  • No means no. That fact doesn’t change if the other person says yes at first or if the two of you have previously had sex. It doesn’t change if someone has been drinking or is wearing revealing clothing or has been kissing you. No means no.