Sexual Harassment In Armed Forces Essay

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The Department of Defense (DoD) defines sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when (a) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of a person’s job, pay, or career; (b) submission to or rejection of such conduct by a person is used as a basis for career or employment decisions affecting that person; or (c) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. While this definition mirrors those developed by litigation in the civilian community, military personnel, unlike civilians, cannot litigate sexual harassment cases against their military employers. Civilian personnel employed by the military may litigate.


An advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense on women’s issues first mentioned sexual harassment in a 1980 report, urging that the DoD publish policy statements that define and prohibit sexual harassment, establish training programs and procedures for reporting violations, and provide for disciplinary measures for violations of that policy.

In the early 1980s, the armed services initiated the development of policies and procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints and programs for training military personnel on sexual harassment. The Office of the Secretary of Defense conducted the first DoD-wide survey on sexual harassment in 1988.

In 1991, sexual harassment in the military garnered media attention after widely reported incidents of alcohol abuse, destruction of private property, and sexual assault at the annual convention of the Tailhook Association sponsored by the U.S. Navy. Three investigations of the incidents ended in the resignation of high-level navy officials, but none of the alleged perpetrators was ever held accountable.

In 1995, the House Armed Services Committee conducted hearings on sexual harassment and specifically examined how to improve the military complaint system. The same year, the DoD convened a Task Force on Discrimination and Sexual Harassment and conducted its second Sexual Harassment Survey. A third survey was conducted in 2002.

In 1996, incidents of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment occurring at the Army’s Aberdeen (Maryland) Proving Grounds were revealed. In the aftermath, several drill sergeants were convicted by courts-martial of rape or charges related to sexual harassment and the army convened a senior review panel to examine the problem of sexual harassment army wide.

Rates Of Sexual Harassment

The 1995 and 2002 surveys asked questions about a wide range of unprofessional gender-related behaviors as well as behaviors defined as sexual harassment. According to the surveys, over this time period there was a general decline in unprofessional behaviors and sexual harassment. Between 1995 and 2002, the overall rate of sexual harassment declined from 45% to 24% for women and from 8% to 3% for men. The largest decline occurred for U.S. Marine Corps women, whose rate decreased from 57% to 27%. The rate of sexual assault for women declined from 6% to 3%.


In the 2002 survey, 77% of women and 79% of men reported receiving sexual harassment training within the previous 12 months. Ninety percent of respondents agreed that the training provided a good understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, and over 80% agreed that the training provided them with useful tools for dealing with sexual harassment.

The Complaint Process

There are a variety of avenues for filing a formal complaint of sexual harassment in the armed forces: (a) the chain of command of either the victim or the offender; (b) filing a formal Equal Opportunity/Sexual Harassment Complaint with the Military Equal Opportunity Office; (c) filing a complaint with the Command Inspector General, the Inspector General of the particular branch of service, or the DoD Inspector General; and (d) when applicable, filing a complaint of wrongs against the Commanding Officer through the local Office of the Staff Judge Advocate. Other channels for filing complaints may include chaplains, medical agencies, the Provost Marshal, and members of Congress. Military personnel filing complaints with members of Congress and/or the Inspector General are protected by statute (10 U.S.C. 1034 (a) (b)) relative to communications with the same (such oversight authorities) and retaliation by employers. (Civilian employees working for the DoD may use the Equal Employment Opportunity complaint system.)

Commanders have several options for dealing with military personnel who have perpetrated sexual harassment. These include counseling, a letter of admonition or reprimand, nonjudicial punishment, administrative discharge, and court-martial.

According to the 2002 survey, only 30% of women and 17% of men who experienced sexual harassment reported the situation through one of the channels listed above. For women this represented a decrease in reporting since 1995, when 38% reported harassment. Most of the reports in 2002 were made to the supervisor of the victim or offender. The most common reason for not reporting (given by 67% of women and 78% of men) was that the respondent did not regard the incident as serious enough. Thirty-two percent of women and 22% of men feared being labeled a troublemaker. Similar percentages believed that nothing would be done. Of those women who filed a complaint, 34% were satisfied with the outcome, 34% were dissatisfied, and 32% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. Among men, 37% were satisfied, 24% were dissatisfied, and 39% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

Risk Factors And Correlates

Studies have shown that the experience of sexual harassment among military personnel is associated with psychological distress, job dissatisfaction, and a low rate of retention. Personal risk factors include female gender, younger age, lower rank, and a history of childhood abuse. Workplace characteristics associated with sexual harassment and other unprofessional gender-related behaviors include poor leadership, lack of readiness, low cohesion, and a climate that is discriminatory towards women. Studies have also shown that tolerance of sexual harassment among military members is associated with negative attitudes toward women in the military.


  1. Bastian, L. D., Lancaster, A. R., & Reist, H. E. (1996). Department of Defense 1995 Sexual Harassment Survey. Retrieved from
  2. Cook, P. J., Jones, A. M., Lipari, R. N., & Lancaster, R. (2005). Service Academy 2005 Sexual Harassment and Assault Survey. Retrieved from
  3. Lipari, R. N., & Lancaster, A. R. (2003). Armed Forces 2002 Sexual Harassment Survey. Retrieved from
  4. Lipari, R. N., Lancaster, A. R., & Jones, A. M. (2004). 2004 Sexual Harassment Survey of Reserve Component Members. Retrieved

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