Want To End Harassment In The Military? Try A Little Shame

Sexual assault and harassment are two sides of the same coin.

We can all agree that assault and violence are criminal and wrong — no controversy there. We also know that harassment is a precursor to assault. It reveals an attitude that women are unequal and unworthy.

Within the military, however, there’s been institutional confusion about where to draw the line between sexual harassment and traditional “boys will be boys” behavior. Despite years of attempts to stomp it out, harassment is rampant and widely tolerated in today's military.

A new Pentagon report shows that rather than making progress, our military is getting worse at protecting women (and some men) from harassment and abuse by their colleagues. While this news is certainly disappointing, it doesn’t surprise me.

Rather than making progress, our military is getting worse at protecting women (and some men) from harassment and abuse by their colleagues.

When I joined the navy in the early 1990s, some basic changes were already afoot. Watching porn together in the wardroom? That was your dad's navy. Playboy in the work spaces? Keep them in your footlocker! Towel-snapping hijinks in the passageway to the shower? Wear your bathrobe.

But on my first day aboard ship, I found myself surrounded by glossy posters of young ladies in too-small bikinis, suggestively straddling too-large motorcycles. Such was the decorating taste of my department head, who dared me to complain about his office artwork. “They aren’t naked,” he said when he saw the look on my face. “So, what are you going to do, report me?”

I also remember my first sexual harassment training class. The officer in charge ad-libbed his opening remarks and they went something like this:

"Now the military is making us show you this "sexual harassment" video (imagine the air quotes) so you keep out of trouble. Some of you don't have to worry about this since you'll be going to all-male commands, you lucky dogs. But thanks to the new "sensitive" Navy (eyes rolling, more air quotes) we all have to watch it. This is for you, ladies. Don't fall asleep."

Maybe that attitude is a relic of the past. It was certainly common when I signed up, but by now that generation of leaders has either retired or evolved within a military that is about 15 percent female. Training is better. But it still doesn't appear to be working.

There are three central characters in most instances of harassment: the harasser, the victim, and the witness. Not all incidents happen in public. But many do. For example, at least a hundred people heard what the officer administering my sexual harassment training said. Yet, no one complained. Except me.

I was a brash, know-it-all junior officer on a mission to change the world, and I stepped up multiple times to report harassment. I complained about the lame support for training, I removed sexually suggestive pictures from walls and confiscated porn that was left lying around. Did the men responsible — my instructors, my boss, my peers — feel ashamed? They didn't seem to. I was routinely teased for being "too sensitive" or a "goody-two-shoes." And that's only what they said to my face.

In my experience, however, most military men are honorable and respectful toward their female colleagues. Indeed, my male colleagues remain some of my closest friends. In them lies the solution to this problem.

A little shame can go a long way.

Many of us have read Nathaniel Hawthorn's classic novel, “The Scarlet Letter.” Who can forget the image of Hester Prynne, humiliated and shunned, sporting a big red "A" for adulterer on her bosom? Hawthorn's fictional community and generations of readers recognize that shame is an effective deterrent.

The military will never recover from its current malaise unless the witnesses step up and slap a metaphorical “A” for abuser on the offenders’ medal-encrusted chests. In order to solve this problem once and for all, we need to eliminate the tolerance and the confusion. Women can't do this alone. Men need to speak up too.

So to my brothers in uniform: Now's the time. Use some good old-fashioned peer pressure and make your male colleagues ashamed when they step out of line. Show them what it means have someone's back, to be a good shipmate, to be a real man. And when they let you down, let everyone know. A little shame can go a long way.


This program aired on May 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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