"What is it about the Navy?" That's the question that Adm. Frank B. Kelso, the chief of naval operations, says his wife asked him when allegations of sexual harassment by naval aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention came to light.
What is it about the Navy, indeed? Reports earlier this week that a lewd skit about a congresswoman was performed by naval personnel at a recent aviators banquet in San Diego have prompted acting Navy Secretary J. Daniel Howard to condemn what he calls the "Stone Age attitudes" and "disgraceful behavior" of some men toward women in that service.
These ugly incidents have prompted Howard to call for a military-law amendment prohibiting sexual harassment and to order that all Navy units devote an entire day within the next two months to sensitivity training. These steps are appropriate and long overdue. But we fear that reports of the Tailhook and San Diego banquet incidents represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual harassment in the armed forces--and in the American workplace generally.
The San Diego incident was particularly disgraceful. A large banner with words referring to oral sex and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) was hung in the officers club of the Miramar Naval Air Station on June 18 as part of the "Tomcat Follies," a week of events involving aviators who fly carrier-based jets. The fliers belong to a squadron that attended last year's Tailhook convention, at which women were forced to run a gantlet of about 200 men who fondled them and pulled off their clothes.
Rep. Schroeder has publicly criticized the sexual abuse at the convention. Numerous members of Congress as well as President Bush also have strongly condemned the Tailhook fliers' actions. But who was it the San Diego aviators singled out for retaliation and humiliation? A woman, Schroeder, who is a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
The House committee plans to inquire into attitudes toward women in the military in coming weeks. A Senate committee has already heard four women who served in the Persian Gulf War testify that they were raped by male comrades. Worse still, the complaints of these women to their superiors fell on deaf ears.
Sadly, all these inexcusable incidents reveal the pervasiveness of sexism in the military and lend urgency to the calls for immediate, comprehensive attention to the problem.