NEWPORT, R.I. — WHEN Master Chief Petty Officer Ginger Lee Simpson joined the United States Navy in 1968, she was one of only 3,500 women in the service. Sexual harassment, she says, was rampant.
"I was propositioned all the time, as well as touched a lot," recalls MCPO Simpson. So were the other women, she says. The constant harassment made "some of us abrasive and defensive. Others succumbed to the pressure. For years we lost women because of that."
Treatment of women has "improved significantly," says Simpson, who now heads the Senior Enlisted Academy, a leadership-training wing of the Naval Education and Training Center here.
But there's more to do. The Navy is reeling from fallout over an investigation into the Tailhook scandal last September, when 26 women were sexually assaulted at a convention of naval pilots.
Last week, the Enlisted Academy held its first officers' training since the convention. One full day was devoted to sexual harassment. The official message was as prickly as a crew cut: catcalls, stares, groping, propositioning, and repeated unwanted requests for dates are verboten and can result in disciplinary action.
"Those who don't get serious - we will discharge you," says a grim-faced Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Frank Kelso, in a video.
The Navy has had a string of sexual-harassment incidents in recent months. In one, a female midshipman at the Naval Academy was chained to a urinal and taunted; in another, five pilots were accused of raping a woman at a party in Virginia. Twenty-six assaulted
But Tailhook really hit home. The annual symposium, held by the Tailhook Association, a private group of naval aviators, has had the reputation of being a Bacchanal. At this one, female Navy personnel and civilians were forced through a gantlet of mauling, drunken pilots. One female aide to an admiral filed a complaint; 26 women said they were sexually assaulted. Ten of the women were officers.
The Navy is considering the incident a watershed event, says Lt. Mary Hanson, a public relations officer. "It so shocked and dismayed many people. It's caused wide reflection." Some observers are saying that the incident may cost the careers of several admirals.
The Navy completed one investigation in May that implicated more than 70 male officers. The superior of the woman complainant has since been transferred to a lesser job for not acting sooner. But few disciplinary actions have been taken, and the investigation has been hampered by reluctance of officers to testify.
New investigatory reports, released Wednesday, disclose that Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III "came by" a suite where pornographic movies were being shown. His presence was known but not mentioned in the original report. Secretary Garrett said he saw nothing offensive, and he ordered an investigation into why his presence was not mentioned in the original report.
In the wake of the publicity, the Navy has been forced to confront some serious questions: How does an enormous battleship of an institution make a fundamental change of course in the way its members view and treat each other? And how do you keep behavior above board when increasing numbers of women serve on traditionally all-male ships for long stays at sea? Some 9,000 women are now on 70 ships; on some they make up 50 percent of the crew. Ten percent of the total force is female. Abusive behavior noted
Charles Moskos, military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says that, in past conventions, "no one would ever have dared do that to women, ... but as women have advanced more in the military, the resistance to it has taken its form in abusive behavior."
The Navy has had a sexual-harassment policy since the early 1980s. In the wake of Tailhook, it has formulated a "zero-tolerance" policy and adopted tougher penalties.
But the main focus is on education. During the training session here, the men (and some women) role-played, were drilled by a lawyer in definitions of sexual harassment, and had a military version of a consciousness-raising session. Concern expressed
During the session some of the men expressed concern over the problem - and the publicity: "This stuff has been going on my whole career."
And, on why so much attention has been paid to the subject since Tailhook: "It's human nature. You don't listen to a whisper."
Others point out that sexual harassment affects more than Navy women personnel: It also affects civilian women that sailors encounter on shore leave, or lower-ranking officers. "A guy's officer comes in and wants to dance with an ensign's wife.... What's he going to do, say no? That's his whole career, right there," says Senior Chief Petty Officer Clinton Perkins.
In the lawyer's briefing, a few officers seem more concerned about the effect on officers' careers of possibly false charges and the stalling of promotions of those involved in Tailhook until an investigation is completed. "They're guilty until proven innocent," protests one officer.
"Tailhook didn't come out of left field," says Simpson. "What it did was to bring to our awareness what we were accepting. What was acceptable for guys is no longer appropriate."
Some observers say the situation won't change until women are working alongside men in all parts of the Navy. That change may come soon.