An alarm went up last month when the Army released a survey suggesting that more than 80 percent of soldiers had experienced sexual harassment within the last year.
Everyone from members of Congress to top generals to the media accepted this disturbing depiction of rampant sexual harassment.
But that portrait is distorted.
Even as the public’s definition of what constitutes sexual harassment has broadened over the years, surveys of Army women since 1988 show a general decline in the levels of sexual harassment.
The larger trend has been lost as the Army, under siege, must restore its credibility after the trainers’ sex ring was discovered last November at the Army Ordnance Center and School in Aberdeen, Md. And now, the former sergeant major of the Army, Gene McKinney, has been arraigned on unrelated sexual misconduct charges.
More than anything, the results of the Army’s attempts to measure harassment reflect a quirk in such surveys.
When asked if they are victims of sexual harassment, people tend to answer “yes” in relatively small numbers. But when given a list of behaviors that might constitute sexual harassment - ranging from dirty jokes to rape - very high numbers respond affirmatively.
Women soldiers polled in three different ways in 1995 gave three very different sets of answers. One survey asked if they had been sexually harassed; 25 percent said “yes.” The second asked if they had experienced any of 10 types of harassing behavior; 61 percent said “yes.” The third asked if they had experienced any of 24 types of harassing behavior; 82 percent said “yes.”
Because of the different survey methods, “you just can’t compare numbers from one survey to another,” said Jacqueline Mottern, an Army Research Institute scientist who was the senior researcher for the 1997 survey.
Nor does it matter how the Army’s rate compares with those in the civilian world, she said. “It’s the Army that we’re looking at, and according to Army data, we may be getting a little better, but we’re still not where we want to be. We’re setting the standard for ourselves.”
But the Army’s decision to treat its isolated survey results as evidence of an urgent problem ignores the fact that incorrect behavior against women soldiers generally has declined during the last decade.
When women were asked in 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1997 whether they had been sexually harassed in the last year, the percentage dropped from almost 30 percent to almost 22 percent. A survey used in 1988 and 1995, which asked about 10 types of behavior, shows a drop from 68 percent to 61 percent.
Army researchers deny emphasizing negative results. But a hint that public relations, as well as science, had a hand is shown by the different ways in which last month’s and 1995’s surveys were presented. The same questions were asked both years of more than 13,000 male and female Army soldiers. Had they experienced any of 24 different types of unwanted sexual behavior, ranging from “suggestive stories” to forced sex in the past year?
The results for women were nearly the same both years.
In 1995, 82 percent of women said they had experienced one or more of the unwanted behaviors; in 1997, 84 percent said they had such experiences. The least serious types of activity, “crude behavior, ” for instance, accounted for the two-point increase in the overall 1997 score. Rates for more serious actions such as sexual bribery or assault dropped post-Aberdeen.
On the other hand, men’s rates of experiencing harassing activity jumped from 37 percent in 1995 to 80 percent in 1997. The numbers suggest greater sensitivity by men after Aberdeen, but the Army attributes the shift to subtle wording changes in the questions.
The Defense Manpower Data Center, a Pentagon organization that studies personnel issues for all the services, conducted the 1995 survey. It concluded at that time that “there is evidence that sexual harassment is declining significantly in the active-duty military” although it remains “a major challenge.”
Two years later, after Aberdeen, the tone - but not the numbers for sexual harassment of women - had changed significantly.
Army Chief of Staff Dennis J. Reimer used a feminist cliche to dramatize his concern.
“In closing, I would state that, ‘We got it,”’ Reimer told members of Congress last month. “The Army’s senior leaders recognize we have a problem and understand its scope, and we will fix it.”
Toward that end, the Army is creating a three-star general’s billet to oversee basic training, increasing the number of equal opportunity advisers from 340 to 500, and adding a week of training in human rights sensitivities and values.
The extra week of training alone will have significant costs. Over a year, it translates into 1,400 hours, or the equivalent of reducing the size of the active Army by two battalions, the Army has said.
Louise Fitzgerald, a professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign, who invented the 24-option “Sexual Experiences Questionnaire,” or SEQ, method of estimating sexual harassment about 10 years ago, admits some uneasiness about such a shotgun definition of sexual harassment.
Fitzgerald said her survey was designed to get around the emotional and intellectual prejudices that people bring to harassment surveys and to discover what stresses people out - regardless of what it is called.
“It really screws up your data” simply to use words like “sexual harassment,” Fitzgerald said. “People have very different ideas about what constitutes sexual harassment. People think, ‘This is horrible and awful, but it wasn’t sexual harassment,”’ she said.
“It hurts them whatever you call it. I agree that the term, except in a very narrow legal sense, has got some baggage along with it, and we might be better off finding another way to think about it or talk about it.”
Given the nature of the Army, however, Fitzgerald said it isn’t surprising to find a relatively high rate of sexual harassment, as defined by her SEQ method. The higher the percentage of men, and the more “macho” the tasks of an organization, the higher the SEQ score, she said.