New Navy manual aims to prevent harassment

April 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- With its penchant for by-the-book precision, the military has manuals for just about everything -- legal manuals to punish lawbreakers, technical manuals to assemble weapons. Now, the Navy has prepared a new manual on how to recognize, prevent and deal with sexual harassment.

Intended to serve as a comprehensive resource for thousands of Navy commanders worldwide, the manual defines the problem, tells how to handle complaints and holds commanders responsible for eliminating harassment in their ranks, with an implicit threat that promotions could be jeopardized if they do not. The Navy will distribute the manuals fleetwide by early fall.

Much of the 64-page handbook, with lengthy attachments and sample cases, is a compendium of orders and memorandums Navy leaders have issued since dozens of women were assaulted at the bawdy weekend of the Tailhook Association convention of naval aviators in Las Vegas in 1991.

Using these new orders and regulations, the Navy has dismissed 89 officers and sailors for sexual harassment since 1992. But even the Navy acknowledges that the new regulations have achieved mixed results at best.

And outside experts are asking whether these new manuals will just gather dust on bookshelves and desk tops and whether more paper proclamations will change the ingrained attitudes of a male-dominated culture.

Naval officials are hoping that the mere existence of the manual will be regarded as a sign of new seriousness on the topic. But this handbook will have to address a difficult transition for the U.S. military, which has always operated by the book, from the angle of a soldier's salute to the way recruits make their beds.

When it comes to sexual harassment, however, the military faces an issue etched in shades of gray that demands subjective judgments and interpretations.

"When I go to the field, a lot of people still don't know what we mean by sexual harassment," said Rear Adm. Paul E. Tobin Jr., head of the Navy's office for what it describes as personal readiness and community support. "We're trying to make sure they know where the line is."

Senior Navy officials say the release of the manual coincides with increased sensitivity training and stricter punishment for offenders to hammer home the service's "zero-tolerance" message. But lawmakers and independent experts say the tolerance has not yet dropped that far in practice.

"The Navy has taken some positive action, but it really needs to look more at enforcing these new rules," said Wilma D. Powell, chairwoman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, an independent advisory panel to the Secretary of Defense. "You can have all sorts of rules and regulations, but if they're not enforced, it's a waste."

Last month, for example, four women serving in the military told the House Armed Services Committee that the military, rather than disciplining offenders, often punished the women who complained of harassment. One, Lt. Darlene Simmons, a lawyer in the Navy Reserve, said she had been forced to take a psychiatric exam after accusing her male superior of sexual harassment.

Even in areas where the Navy is making strides, commanders are adjusting awkwardly. For instance, the first female fighter pilots to serve aboard aircraft carriers are now joining their squadrons and preparing to fly with their male colleagues.

"The Navy leadership is going out of its way to be supportive," said one senior female aviator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "In fact, they're so serious about not offending anyone, the women may be getting a little too much of the kid-glove treatment."

Navy officials say the idea for a manual came from officers in Norfolk, Va., who wanted a ready reference book on the Navy's most sensitive social policy. Of the 1,409 calls the Navy's toll-free Sexual Harassment Advice Line has logged since it started in late 1992, slightly more than half have come from men seeking guidance on the new policies.

The manual describes how to handle complaints and warns against penalizing those who complain.

In a sign of how seriously the Navy seems to be treating the issue the handbook even recommends that as a last resort, complainants or commanders write their representatives in Congress for help. In the past, any foray outside the chain of command has been seriously frowned on by senior commanders; those who tried often complained that they were punished for doing so.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.