One page of 'Red Light, Green Light' advice targets subtleties of Navy harassment

June 19, 1993|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Washington is famous for its ominous reds -- red tape, red ink, the red phone. Now there is also the red zone, the Navy's attempt to offer simple, "bumper sticker" instructions on curbing sexual harassment.

With a few succinct phrases, recently sent to all commanding officers in an information packet called the "Captain's Call Kit," the Department of the Navy tries to answer a question that has obsessed and confounded the nation since the Navy's Tailhook scandal and Capitol Hill's Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings: "What Is Sexual Harassment?"

This single-page effort to answer that question, and another longer brochure that will be distributed to

Navy and Marine officers, called "Resolving Conflict: Following the Light of Personal Behavior," drastically boils down a more in-depth training system developed by the Standing Committee on Women in the Naval Service in the aftermath of Tailhook.

Designed to be displayed on military bulletin boards around the country, the folder insert does not deal with psychology or military culture, or address any of the more outrageous incidents outlined in the Navy's Tailhook report: "streaking," "mooning," "leg-shaving" and "butt biting."

Instead, with the bland vocabulary of a suburban high school guidance counselor and the simple clarity of the children's game "Red Light, Green Light," it uses traffic-light colors to group acceptable and unacceptable forms of behavior between

the sexes.

The green zone (Go) includes "placing a hand on a person's elbow" and "everyday social interaction such as saying, 'Hello, how are you?' "

The yellow zone (Slow down to stop) includes "whistling," "unwanted poems" and "questions about personal life."

And the red zone (Stop) includes "sexual favors in return for employment rewards and threats if sexual favors are not provided" and "sexual assault and rape."

While Navy officials are proud of what Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, the chief of Navy information, calls their "sound bite, bumper sticker" approach, it has also provoked some jibes from Pentagon officials who do not believe that such a complex,

nuanced, subjective issue can be re

duced to color-coded do's and don'ts.

As one Army officer, based at the Pentagon, said sarcastically: "Oh, gosh, I didn't know saying 'Good morning' to someone is a green zone, and I'm really glad to know that rape is a red zone."

The doubters agree that the Navy's motives are commendable but worry that sexual harassment is a large, difficult subject that does not lend itself to military regimentation and codification.

While it is easy to define the extremes -- saying "hello" and not committing rape -- it is not so easy to reduce the gray areas to a few phrases.

It is a difficult period for the U.S. military culture, which has always operated by the book, grounded in certitudes on everything from the exact angle of a salute to the exact way

to fold the corners of bedsheets.

Now the military finds itself awash in gray areas as it tries to define proper sexual behavior, both between men and women and as it develops rules for sexual behavior for everyone in the military to meet President Clinton's commitment to allow avowed homosexuals to serve.

Ellen Bravo, the national director of 9 to 5, a women's rights organization, and the co-author of a book on sexual harassment, said that the problem with a list of do's and don'ts is that it can be confusing.

"I know of one company that gave out a list," she said, "and one of the 'don'ts' was 'elevator eyes,' where your eyes go up and down someone like an elevator. As soon as the guys in the company got the list, they began having an elevator-eyes contest. These shorthand things cannot be a

substitute for interactive training."

Ms. Bravo noted that several of the Navy's "green light" examples -- "counseling on military appearance," "a polite compliment or friendly conversation," "performance counseling" and "touching which would not be perceived in a sexual way" -- are so vague that they could easily be "yellow lights" or even "red lights" depending on the manner in which they were done.

"The reason why personal training is so important is that things that seem to be OK, like compliments, may not be OK depending on how they are delivered," she said. "The phrase, 'Gee, your hair looks terrific, Miss Jones,' might be innocent enough, until the tone of voice is intimate and the guy leans in very close and breathes heavily in your hair as he says it."

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