Sex Issues in US Military Puzzle, Fascinate the World


The United States military may be a victim of its own success. It has gone faster and farther in inducting women than any of its Western counterparts.

With some 195,000 female personnel, the US military is the nation's biggest employer of women and has the largest percentage of women - 13.5 percent - among NATO forces.

But the most-powerful fighting force in history now is struggling with the fallout from the discharge of Lt. Kelly Flinn and the withdrawal of Gen. Joseph Ralston as a candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (both admitted to adultery), as well as the rape convictions of three Army drill sergeants in Maryland.

Many experts see stark shortcomings in the US armed forces' drive to recruit women, including how to handle having men and women live and work together at close quarters. Other nations, they say, deal with the issues in practical, low-key ways without sacrificing morale or military capabilities. Many US allies do not consider adultery a military offense and do not restrict sexual activity if it does not involve individuals in a direct chain of command.

On June 16, Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts proposed legislation to decriminalize sex between consenting members of the US military.

The armed forces of many countries "concede that people of different genders living together introduces a dynamic that they cannot simply wish away," says John Williams, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago who is co-writing a book on post-cold-war Western armies.

"We need to be more discriminating about what kind of behavior really impacts on military effectiveness," he says.

In its rush to open up to women, the US military did not adjust its rules on fraternization and adultery to allow for the changing attitudes of civilian society, experts say.

While the military treats adultery as a crime, a recent poll shows most Americans say it is a private matter for which individuals should not be penalized in their careers. Some military officers in other Western forces are puzzled

as to why this view is not embraced by the US.

"If you watch US television programs, you see a lot of sex and violence and that makes you think this is a very liberal country," says Capt. Vivian van de Perre, the former chief of gender integration of the Dutch military, who is on assignment at the United Nations. "What you actually have here are a lot of conservative attitudes."

Those attitudes manifest themselves in the US military's notion that adultery and fraternization threaten "good order and discipline," the building blocks of military proficiency.

But the perception that the rules on sexual misconduct are not consistently applied - between the branches of the armed services, and between the sexes and military ranks - has upset many Americans.

No case reinforced the perception of a double standard more than that of General Ralston, who remained a candidate for the top US military post - chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - despite being an admitted adulterer. That contrasted sharply with the harsh treatment dealt to lower-ranking officers, igniting a political storm that forced him to withdraw from consideration June 9.

The American military has been slow to promote a change in the culture of what was virtually an all-male bastion, experts say.

As evidence, they point to the the rape convictions of three Army drill sergeants at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Other evidence comes in a 1996 Pentagon survey in which 55 percent of women questioned reported encountering offensive conduct by male personnel.

Reports from Monitor writers show that at NATO headquarters and among Western armed forces, the US military's struggle with sexual harassment is looked upon as both a special, somewhat perplexing case and as a harbinger of what they may face in the future.


NATO almost took up the issues of adultery, fraternization, and sexual harassment at a meeting this month - until it found that members could not even agree on how to define the terms. "Everyone recognizes that when sex becomes an issue, it interferes with the good order and discipline of a unit, but we had no common basis to talk about it," says US Department of Defense spokesman Maj. Wes Davis, who attended a June 1-6 meeting in Turkey.

"We spoke about this, but we don't have the same definitions. Not even the same cultural sense of what constitutes sexual harassment. We're going to study the question," adds Ghislane Vigla, the French representative to the talks.

In Europe, adultery is not a military offense. Many nations have no restrictions on sexual activity outside one's immediate chain of command. If infractions occur, they are dealt with individually or by administrative procedures, rather than a court-martial.

Sexual harassment is more of a problem. But there have been no public cases, or even a definition of what harassment is, NATO officials say.

For many Europeans, cases such as the 1992 Tailhook scandal, involving US Navy officers at a convention in Las Vegas, are "outrageous" and deserve to be condemned and punished.

But many say that Americans have become too extreme in trying to define the term and limit the practice.

"The US has very strict rules on sex harassment that ... many Europeans find totally ridiculous," says a NATO official in Brussels, who asked not to be identified because he was expressing a personal opinion. "Men can have a problem wishing the time of day to a women, lest it be viewed as sexual harassment. But we follow with interest what happens to the US today because it happens to us tomorrow."

The US military's response to incidents of consensual sex in the services, such as the US Air Force's recent treatment of Lieutenant Flinn, stirred even more controversy.

"She wasn't treated fairly. Adultery had nothing to do with her job," says Dutch Army Sgt. Anneka Bondt, who works at the Supreme Headquarters for Allied Powers in Europe outside Mons, Belgium. But "lying under oath is a bad thing if it is in relation to her work," she concedes.

NATO's 15 member states differ widely in their acceptance and integration of women in the armed forces, ranging from the US, Canada, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands, where women take on a wide range of activities, to Italy, which doesn't plan to admit women into its armed forces until the end of this year.

"In Canada, women are told in basic training not to fraternize with other enlisted personnel in the same chain of command and to have zero tolerance for sexual harassment," says Canadian Army Warrant Officer Nicole Morneau at NATO headquarters in Mons, Belgium. "We've had harassment advisers in units for about five years now, and we feel that standards are improving."

"If you feel uncomfortable, whether at a word, a touch, or a picture on the wall, you just report it to your national officer," adds Dutch Army Sergeant Bondt. "New recruits are warned against starting a [sexual] relationship within the same unit. But if it happens, it happens," she adds.

Some women officers, however, take a stricter view. Melanie Cross, a squadron leader with Britain's Royal Air Force, has lectured new recruits on fraternization and sexual harassment. "I'm angry [at Flinn]," she says. "We fought hard to get where we are, and many militaries just started taking women on. It's clear to us what the rules are. You can't break them and expect to be treated differently."

- Gail Russell Chaddock in Mons, Belgium


WOMEN warriors have had a solid place in French history ever since Joan of Arc forced English invaders out of Orlans in 1429.

Nonetheless, today women make up only 7.5 percent of the French military and 4 percent of its officers. In a recent survey, some 80 percent of women in the military say that relations with men are good.

"We were astonished by [the Flinn] case in France.... Such a case is viewed as touching private life," says military spokeswoman Ghislane Vigla, who specializes in issues involving the integration of women into the military. "The capacity of a women to pilot a plane has nothing to do with whether she is committing adultery," she adds.

In France, there are no specific regulations on sex in the military beyond forbidding relations that interfere with one's mission. Adultery would be handled quietly by transfers, officials say.

"We have rules on base, but once we're in town, it's considered our private life," says an officer on the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, who asked not to be identified.

"There's a great professionalism in the US Navy," he adds. "You can feel the difference just walking onto a US aircraft carrier. But in France, there is much more respect for the individual than in the US Navy."

The French news media devoted plenty of ink to details of the Flinn case, which it presented as a Cinderella story gone bad and an example of American "puritanism" run amok.

"She is beautiful, Kelly. But she is alone," gushed the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Few French news reports explained that the wife in the case was an enlisted women, or that refusing to obey an order and lying under oath were elements of the case.

- Gail Russell Chaddock, Paris


ADULTERY is also not a crime under British military law. In the Royal Navy, male and female crew aboard ships at sea must adhere to a "no-touching" rule, but when personnel are on dry land, official attitudes are more relaxed, says a Ministry of Defense spokesman.

Cases of women in military life suffering from discrimination are numerous, however. In part, this is because the numbers of women in the armed forces are still small, and females find themselves an embattled minority of less than 10 percent.

Among recent examples of gender discrimination, perhaps the worst is that of Alisa Cook, a former lieutenant who left the Army claiming to have been bullied and subjected to sexual taunts by male officers.

In February, Ms. Cook, now a business executive, accepted a public apology and an undisclosed sum in damages from the Ministry of Defence.

At the other end of the scale, last year Helen Gardiner became Britain's first woman fighter pilot to tackle "unfriendly aircraft" when her Tornado F-3 intercepted two Russian intruders in the skies over the North Sea.

The one part of the armed forces that has refused to budge over admitting women is the Royal Marines, which applies a strict "men only" rule.

It is being challenged, however, by Angela Sirdar, who in 1995 was let go as an Army chef and applied for a post with the Marines' catering corps. Now Mrs. Sirdar is taking her complaint to the European Court of Justice. With backing from Britain's Equal Opportunities Commission, she says the Marines' contention that she would have to be a commando first and a cook second is "nonsense."

- Alexander MacLeod, London


EARLIER this month, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) decided to reverse a policy that would be unnecessary in most countries: Young women with promising careers in modeling, once able to receive army exemptions, are no longer excused.

The decision appeared to be a reaction to an article in a popular women's magazine highlighting how easy it is for cover girls to skirt army service. Models and actresses boasted that serving would be a waste of time.

In the only nation in the world to conscript all women - except for Orthodox Jews and Arabs - there is still much debate over the role female soldiers should play. While some women may be eager to avoid service, many more fight for opportunities to serve in combat units and attain high rank.

Israel gained fame for having an egalitarian army after women soldiers fought alongside men during the 1948 War of Independence. But since the 1950s, when more men became available to serve, women have been kept out of combat positions.

That has left most Israeli women to go through a modified basic training and then serve as "jobniks," a derogatory term used to describe clerical and administrative positions. Others stay three or four years as training officers and tank instructors.

Sexual harassment was largely ignored until the last few years, when the parliament passed a bill forcing the IDF to keep statistics on incidents and complaints. The IDF says there are about 100 cases a year.

But by and large, sex among the enlisted is treated as a fact of army life. Recruits often expect to meet their mates while in uniform; men and women on the same base date openly without much attention paid to it.

- Ilene R. Prusher, Jerusalem


SHE has run six miles with a heavy pack through the woods, bunked with male conscripts, and searched for land mines.

Capt. Diana Sendlack, an aircraft radar systems instructor at the F-20 Air Force wing an hour outside of Stockholm also teaches future officers to appreciate the differences between men and women in the military.

"I looked at men and thought I had to be like them," she recalls of her early years in the military. "Now we have more women ... and the leadership is much more human."

In Sweden, similar in size to California but with a population of only 8.8 million, women have been accepted into the military since 1979, but few choose to join. Of 33,000 noncommissioned soldiers in active service in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, only 150 are women; 321 female officers serve out of a corp of 15,000.

If there's one conspicuous difference between basic training in Sweden and the US, it's that most women share sleeping quarters - and showers - with men. It's a subject foreigners frequently ask about. Despite tradition, the policy will probably be changed.

Given the obvious opportunities for abuse, there are few reported cases of sexual harassment (a handful in recent years) or instances of officers leaving because of unplanned pregnancies.

"We have seen cases where female conscripts are harassed by some [male] in their company," says Markus Gustaffson, editor of the military newspaper Vrnplicktsnytt, estimating that there are a few unreported cases each year. "But we have never [had] a conscript raped by a sergeant."

- Martha Andersson, Stockholm


THE commander of Norway's submarine division is a woman, the first to achieve such a post in any country. "We are quite proud of that," says a reporter with Sorsvarets Forum, a defense magazine in Norway.

Norway has had three rape cases within the past decade or so. "We are interested and have tried to get statistics [on harassment], but they're difficult to get," says Maj. Soveig Eikeland at defense headquarters.

A sociologist from the University of Oslo, however, notes in her dissertation that an atmosphere conducive to sexual harassment exists. Spending two weeks at a military base in northern Norway, Anne Werner found that women expended a great deal of effort to become accepted and endured unwanted attention, such as staring.

"The women don't think [harassment] is a problem," Ms. Werner says. "It's something they're getting used to. They don't take it personally because every women is harassed in this way."

- Martha Andersson

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Sex Issues in US Military Puzzle, Fascinate the World
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today