Addressing the Needs of Female Veterans Who Have Experienced Violence and Harassment

Nov 13, 2014, 1:00 PM, Posted by Angela Amar, Jacquelyn Campbell

Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, RN, FAAN, is director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program and Anna D. Wolf chair and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.  Angela Amar, PhD, RN, FAAN, is an associate professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University and an alumna of the RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars program.

As two scholars who have worked in research, practice and policy arenas around issues of gender-based violence for years, we honor our veterans this week by paying tribute to the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for addressing intimate partner and sexual violence among active duty and returning military and their families, and urge continued system-wide involvement and innovative solutions.  

In our work, we’ve heard outrageous, painful stories. One female servicemember explained to Angela why she was ignoring the sexual harassment she experienced. She knew that hearing that she was inferior because she was a woman, being called “Kitty” instead of her name, and having the number 69 used in place of any relevant number was harassing. She knew it was wrong. But she had decided that she would not let it bother her. I can acknowledge that he is a jerk, but I can’t let that affect me.  

I can’t let his behavior define me as a person. On some level this may seem like an accurate way of dealing with a problem person. However, sexual harassment isn’t just about one obnoxious person. Not telling the story doesn’t make the behavior go away. Rather, it sends the message that the behavior is acceptable and that sexist comments are a normal part of the lexicon of male/female interactions.

Sexual harassment, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature are forms of gender discrimination and violations of Title IX and the Civil Rights Act. As with most behaviors, they exist on a continuum ranging from more benign behaviors such as off-color jokes to requesting sexual favors as a condition of employment. This creates a hostile working or educational environment. Tolerating behavior on any end of the spectrum implies that all behaviors on the continuum are acceptable. Ignoring a behavior doesn’t make it less harmful.

This kind of harassment produces consequences for the affected individual and the workplace. The individual who is harassed may feel emotional distress, unease and feelings of not being safe in the work or academic environment, and decreased ability to work or study effectively. The workplace suffers from decreased productivity, loss of morale, and costs related to absences, turnover, etc. The workplace is also held accountable for preventing and managing sexual harassment. Employers, including the military and educational institutions, have a legal obligation to provide a work or academic environment that is free of sexual harassment. Despite website presence of sexual harassment materials, few prevention programs exist and fewer have been evaluated as effective.

In May of 2014, the Pentagon announced that 1,366 cases of sexual harassment were reported in the military last year. This is lower than the 7,256 cases reported by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for civilians. However, experts believe these incidents are underreported and reporting is affected by several factors. The major factor influencing reporting is perceptual. That is, the person must perceive that the behavior is harassing. One person may laugh at a joke that makes another person uncomfortable. The truly egregious cases are easy to see. Anytime someone is faced with losing a job or existing in an environment made hostile solely because of one’s gender is clearly a case of sexual harassment. Yet, workplace culture often supports sexual harassment. A report released by the Pentagon in January 2014 on academic military institutions indicated that 80 to 90 percent of women had borne the brunt of sexist comments. The report also indicates that a culture in the military academies supports crude and offensive sexist behavior. This makes it difficult to report behaviors. It is also troubling as a culture of sexist comments and behaviors can escalate to sexual assault.

Steps to Stop Gender-Based Violence of All Kinds

Dismantling a culture that supports sexual harassment is no doubt an arduous task that requires intervention by top level administrators. It also requires an examination and lack of tolerance of behaviors along the continuum of sexually offensive behavior. It is important to publicly repudiate all areas of misbehavior. While each individual survivor cannot change the culture, telling the story shines light on a hidden problem. Telling the story helps society to recognize that the behavior is not benign and should not be overlooked or tolerated. As more young women report and tell their stories, it moves the issue from the closet into a public arena.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is only one form of gender-based violence that affects all of society and the military. Gender-based violence does not depend on the biological sex of a victim or a perpetrator but rather is an action across the whole continuum of violent and harmful acts affected by gender norms or gender identity in terms of its expression or the way it is addressed.

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence are other forms of gender-based violence that are also prevalent across all segments of society, including the military. The Department of Defense has taken steps to both monitor sexual assault and to prevent and address the issue, with the VA implementing programs to address the leading source of post-traumatic stress disorder among active duty military women: sexual assault.  The same anonymous military sexual assault survey that gave us information about sexual harassment has helped the military bring other forms of sexual assault into the public arena. This survey has not only identified the extent and nature of the problem but also serves as a way to determine how successful the policy changes and prevention efforts being put into place will be.

The same sort of survey and ongoing surveillance is needed for intimate partner violence in the military, which is now only counted in terms of incidents reported to military officials. This could be an important strategy for shining that light on these related forms of gender based violence.  Much of the sexual assault in the military as in the civilian world is intimate partner or ex-partner sexual assault, and sexual assault is an important aspect of intimate partner violence.

The VA is implementing new policies to routinely assess for intimate partner violence victimization in all parts of the VA health care system and to provide services needed to help keep military families safe.  We are excited about this initiative and its opportunity to bring all of the forms of this gender-based violence into the light for our veterans and their families.        

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.