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Sexual Harassment Misperceptions Abound

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 21, 1999 – Service members listen to countless hours of training each year, participate in surveys, and discuss sexual harassment issues among themselves regularly. Yet sexual harassment is still a very real problem, said Air Force Capt. Eric Davis. Davis is an equal opportunity and sexual harassment command advisor with Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington Headquarters Services here.

There are still misperceptions about what constitutes sexual harassment and how best to combat it within the military, he said.

“One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear people make jokes and say things like, ‘I can’t wait to be sexually harassed,’” Davis said. “You can tell they just don’t get it.”

For conduct to meet the definition of sexual harassment, it must be unwanted, unsolicited and severe enough to create a hostile work environment, said Davis.

“If you want this type of conduct to happen to you, it’s not unwelcomed, it’s not unsolicited, therefore it’s not illegal. It’s just sexual conduct,” he said.

Davis said it’s a common misperception that all conduct of a sexual nature is illegal behavior. This creates several problems within the military. “You hear stories about commanders who set boundaries within their commands that any conduct of a sexual nature could ruin your career,” Davis said. “That’s not good leadership, and it’s not what I would advise them if they had bothered to ask me.

So, had those leaders bothered to ask, what would Davis have told them? “You have to take all complaints seriously,” Davis said. “But you want to set up a policy that deals with sexual harassment -– we’re talking about unwanted, unsolicited behavior that alters the condition of someone’s employment –- not sexuality or sexual conduct in general.”

Davis said local policies that are stricter than DoD intended create “a backlash of resentment toward females in a unit.”

He said he often hears comments like, “We didn’t have these problems before females were in our unit.”

“The people who suffer most in a situation like this are the junior female unit members, who had nothing to do with the policy in the first place,” Davis said.

Davis used the metaphor of a pendulum. “You don’t want the pendulum to swing so liberally that we’re accusing everybody of sexual harassment. That’s not the intent of the law,” he said. “On the other hand, we don’t want the pendulum to swing so far the other way that people in authority are not held accountable for their behavior. We’re trying to get that pendulum to stop somewhere in the middle.”

Davis said leaders must also work hard to avoid the “trap of looking within themselves for the standard.” Everyone has their own opinions about sexual harassment based on their own experiences; the challenge for managers is to not let personal biases cloud their judgment.

“Regardless of whether we believe an employee is too sensitive or doesn’t have a sense of humor, all that matters is whether the conduct was of a sexual nature, unwanted and unsolicited,” he said. “The thing to do is model, enforce and live by the standard of zero tolerance set by the Department of Defense.”

When conducting training on sexual harassment issues, Davis said, he often encounters people who think many harassment complaints are frivolous, made by people who are too sensitive or don’t have the backbone to stand up for themselves. But this simply isn’t true, he said.

“The incidents that do get reported are way outside what anyone should have to tolerate at work,” he said.

Far from filing too many frivolous suits, Davis said he believes more people tolerate behavior they don’t have to because it’s the path of least resistance.

“Most people vote with their feet,” he said. They will seek work elsewhere. In other cases, those being sexually harassed often will walk the long way around an office or will begin taking more days off. “Work really suffers because of it.”

Perhaps the most common misperception is that sexual harassment is about sex. Davis pointed out that’s rarely the case. “It’s about power,” he said, “and there are many different types of power.

“The power issue is clear when there’s a difference in rank. If you are in a position to evaluate someone else’s work, obviously you have power over them,” he said. “Beyond that there’s the power of the majority. Just being more popular or having more people agree with you gives you more power. I think people put up with a lot of behavior they find offensive but feel inhibited to do something about it because it’s not a popular move to be a whistle-blower.”

Davis pointed out that the military is only 16 percent women. “That in itself means nothing, but you can see where females in uniform might feel intimidated,” he said.

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