Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military
“Why Are the Defenders Undefended?”
Despite the military’s claim that it has zero tolerance for sexual harassment within its
ranks and assailants receive the harshest punishment, the number of claims are on the rise every
day. Sexual harassment creates an intimidating and hostile work environment and breaks the
links of camaraderie among the men and women who live, train and fight side by side in the
roughest terrain and most extreme weather conditions.
When most people hear the word soldier, sailor, airman, or marine the first things that
come to their mind are loyalty, duty, respect, honor, and integrity; and many see these brave men
and women as the nation’s defenders yet they are undefended. They face an enemy within the
ranks; while on duty, off duty, during peace time or war time. This enemy can be defeated if the
right measures are put in place and the military brass treat this as a real issue rather than writing
policies and pretending that the problem will be solved with memorandums and Standard
Operating Procedures (SOP). Rules and regulations remain inefficient unless they are applied.
According to Article 93 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) “Sexual
harassment includes influencing, offering to influence, or threatening the career, pay, or job of
another person in exchange for sexual favors, and deliberate or repeated offensive comments or
gestures of a sexual nature.”(“UCMJ”). This behavior is not limited to males harassing females
or vice versa; it also occurs between people of the same gender.
The role of women in the U.S. military has expanded over time; in the 1950’s they
represented two percent of the military. Today they make up over fourteen percent of the active
component and over twenty-four percent of the reserves component. They have served in
different operations, from the Spanish-American War to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Although they are still prohibited from direct ground
combat, women in the military are allowed to fly jets, provide escort for convoys where they
serve as gunners, and perform many other critical duties.
Although they represent a minority within the U.S. military, women make up the majority
of sexual harassment victims, “The vast majority of men reported never having experienced
sexual harassment. We found that between half to about three quarters of academy women
experienced one or more of the following forms of harassment at least twice a month: . . .
unwanted pressure for dates . . . unwanted sexual advances,” (Gebicke). This minority-majority
suffers from all forms of sexual harassment; from whistles and catcalls, to derogatory comments
and sexual advances.
The poor enforcement of sexual harassment policies and the lack of sexual harassment
prevention training are the main contributors to the occurrence of sexual harassment in the armed
forces. In addition to aforementioned factors, women are barred from certain military
occupational specialties that generally open doors for leadership positions. According to a 2004
survey of reserve component members, “Roughly 10% of women and 2% of men reported
experiencing sex discrimination in the 12 months prior to taking the survey,” (“Defense”). This
discrimination against women allows men to advance to higher ranks, therefore when sexual
harassment complaints are sent up the channels; the men in charge of enforcing the rules take the
Victims of sexual harassment are very reluctant about reporting incidents due to the lack
of confidence in the military system, fear of retaliation, and the fear of being labeled as a trouble-
maker. “Only 40 percent of the women said they reported the harassment when it took place; of
those, 20 percent said they experienced retaliation in the form of unfairly lowered performance
ratings,” (Weiner). Although few options to file a complaint are available; through the chaplain,
equal opportunity officer, or the Inspector General; the military highly encourages victims to use
their chain of command first before seeking help from third parties. The idea of solving the
problem at the lowest level remains inefficient due to the code of secrecy maintained by military units.
According to the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), the purpose of military law “is to
promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to
promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the
national security of the United States,” (“MCM”). Most of those familiar with military
proceedings would agree that an offender tried by court martial enjoys more rights than one tried
in a civilian court. Furthermore, military commanders are known for their leniency and
flexibility when it comes to sexual harassment or sexual assault, they tend to choose non-judicial
punishment over other severe forms of punishment.
From no punishment to court martial, command discretion allows military commanders
and leaders to assess the situation and choose the form of punishment they would like to impose.
This could represent a conflict of interest depending on the relationship between the offender and
the commander. Even when wrongdoers are punished, victims in the military receive limited or
no compensation of damages, instead the military concentrates on disciplinary actions. Some
forms of disciplinary punishments are extra duties, detention, and forfeiture of pay and
In the absence of a uniform method for reporting sexual harassment incidents and
accurate statistics, military leaders take credit for the increase and decrease of incidents. When
the number of claims goes up, they claim, it is due to the good reporting policies they have
implemented, and when numbers go down, the decrease is attributed to the sexual harassment
prevention training, and policies to stop it. Sexual preventive training in the military consists of a
power point presentation or a short video. Instructors are often not knowledgeable in the subject.
As the numbers of sexual assaults have increased in Iraq and Afghanistan,
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a ranking democrat on the house rules committee and a
supporter of feminist causes, has proposed legislation to create a Pentagon office for victims of
sexual abuse in the military, but the bill has gone nowhere. In her interview with the New York
Times, Slaughter said ''If we do not address this problem here and now, I predict the Pentagon
will witness a growing exodus of women in uniform, and growing problems in filling the critical
positions they occupy,'' (Clemetson). Women have served in the Iraq war more than any other
war in America’s history. Some of them prefer not to drink water at night, and become
dehydrated to avoid going to the latrines and get raped or abused by fellow service members.
Five years earlier, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine has introduced a legislation to help
victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Armed Forces, this legislation “. . . makes
permanent a program to require the VA to provide counseling to veterans to overcome
psychological trauma resulting from a physical assault or battery of a sexual nature, or from
sexual harassment which occurred during active military service,” (Senate). Both Snowe and
Slaughter are fighting for the rights of other women, working vigorously to pass legislation that
will protect women in uniform.
Few military women have broken through the glass ceiling; U.S. Army General Ann
Dunwoody became the first female four-star general in U.S. history when she was nominated by
the senate in 2008. In 2009, Command Sergeant Major Teresa King, an African American
woman; took charge of drill sergeant training for the entire Army. She is the nation’s first female
to hold this prestigious position. Although these accomplishments are not to be ignored, they
remain insufficient. Women are still underrepresented inside and outside the military. They
constitute seventeen percent of senate and congress, and if women in the military rely on this
minority to solve their problems, it will take a while to see changes. Sexual harassment in the
military is not just a women’s problem; it is everyone’s problem especially now that the average
of sexual assault in the military is higher than that of the general population.
Despite the efforts made by the Department of Defense (DoD) to solve the issue of sexual
harassment, there has been little or no improvement in this area, but it will take some time to
solve this problem. Reliable statistics must be collected, and data should be studied by an
independent agency to determine what the real causes of sexual harassment are and what can
DoD do to prevent it from happening. The military must dedicate time and money to this
problem; it is affecting women in general of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Not even
rank matters, junior enlisted, senior enlisted, and officers have all experienced some type of
Although the rate of sexual harassment is alarming, the media has not addressed this
issue accordingly. It has not been fair in covering stories of military women who have been
sexually harassed or assaulted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe there is a lot more sexual
harassment going on in the studios, and producers are hesitant about bringing up the subject
because they would make the headlines instead.
Clemetson, Lynette. “Officer Testifies of Her Two Sexual Assaults in the Army.” The New YorkTimes 1 Apr. 2004, sec. A19: n. pag. Web. 19 Dec. 2009.
Defense Manpower Data Center. 2004 Sexual Harassment Survey of Reserve Component
Members. By Rachel N Lipari and Anita R Lancaster. Arlington, VA, 2004. PDF file.
Gebicke, Mark E. DOD Service Academies: Further Efforts Needed To Eradicate Sexual
Harassment. Testimony before the Subcommittee on Force Requirements and Personnel,
Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate. N.p.: n.p., 1994. Print.
MCM Manual for Courts-Martial United States. N.p.: n.p., 2008. Print.
Senate. Snowe Introduces Legislation Aiding Veterans who Suffer Sexual . By Olympia S Snowe. N.p., 14 Sept. 1999. Web. 21 Dec. 2009.
UCMJ Uniform Code of Military Justice. Washington DC: n.p., n.d. 93. Print.