When allegations of sexual harassment in the Army first broke in relation to events at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Army officials dismissed the complaints as a result of a “few bad apples”. As the count of women alleging sexual harassment at Aberdeen escalates, from 19 at the first count in November to 50, the Pentagon is being forced to reevaluate the seriousness of the problem. Furthermore, interviews with female recruits and Army officials show that the Army failed to identify the warning signs of the problem’s pervasiseness for over twenty years. In 1980, 150 of 300 women in the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany reported that they were subject to unwanted physical advances. In 1989 and 1996 a majority of women responding to polls conducted in all branches of the military reported that they had encountered some form of sexual harassment. Many of the women also reported that their complaints were met with ridicule and indifference at best and retaliation at worst.
As hundreds and thousands of complaints of sexual harassment erupt throughout the nation, Army officials are quick to point out that they have a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. However, because women must report through a chain of command and because many officers refuse to listen to the complaints or to take them seriously, critics see a structural barrier to successful solution. The Army’s top enlisted officer, for example, has just stepped down from the panel reviewing sexual harassment because of allegations of sexual harassment made against him. Approximately 500 formal complaints are logged each year, but only 12 weeks after a special number was created, outside the normal chain of command, the Army recorded 7,000 calls alleging sexual harassment.
While the Army is reviewing whether or not to continue integrated training for males and females, many critics argue that women are being unfairly punished for the sexual harassment. Some advocates of segregation maintain that women and men simply can’t train together because putting the two sexes together in that type of atmosphere naturally leads to problems of sexual harassment. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) commented on February 7th, however, that this is unfair to the female recruits. Snowe observed that the extent of sexual harassment is not found in college dorms where women and men “train” side-by-side and there should be no excuse for it to occur in the military. She also commented that “Every time a woman is excluded from a position, she’s devalued in terms of what she can do in performing her responsibilities and fulfilling the mission.”