EL TORO MARINE AIR STATION — The 75 Marines sat ramrod straight as their instructor told an off-color joke:
"What's the difference between a wife and a pit bull?"
One Leatherneck in the class guffawed loudly, causing his fellow Marines to shift uncomfortably in their seats and give him sidelong looks. When the instructor informed the class that such "jokes" demean women and have no place in the military, the Leatherneck fell silent and seemed to shrivel into his seat.
The training course was Prevention of Sexual Harassment--POSH to the acronym-happy military. Although the courses have existed in some form since 1980, they have taken on a grim seriousness in the months since 26 women alleged they were assaulted at the Tailhook naval aviators' convention last September. Sex is no laughing matter in the military in these tense times that have followed the scandal.
Last week, Acting Navy Secretary J. Daniel Howard, citing "disgraceful behavior" toward women in the Navy, ordered all personnel to undergo a full day's training on sexual harassment rules. On Wednesday, newly appointed Acting Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe warned men in the Navy and the Marines that any who violate rules against sexual harassment of women "will be driven from our ranks."
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported today that a Navy investigator conducting an inquiry into the Tailhook assaults was removed from the case and disciplined after one of the principal victims complained the man was pressuring her for a date.
At the El Toro base, already bitterly divided over the Tailhook scandal and its aftermath, Howard's order means that every Marine, from grunts to fighter pilots, will spend eight hours in the military's version of sensitivity training.
More than 100 Marines from El Toro attended the Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, base officials said. The base is home to two air squadrons that have been made notorious by the scandal, because each rented a hospitality suite where female visitors reportedly drank alcohol from dispensers in the shape of animal genitalia. There were no reports of sexual harassment in either suite, however.
On Wednesday, aviators who had partied in those suites sat quietly along with other officers, including about a dozen women, who make up just 3.5% of all Marine Corps officers. A male commander informed them that the sexual-harassment issue had now become "deadly serious," and added: "The rules seem to change every time we pick up the newspaper."
Instructor Pat Mitchell, the base's equal employment opportunity specialist, led them through the thorny and emotionally charged forest of myths and truths about sexual harassment.
Mitchell, who is plump, middle-aged and endowed with a stand-up comic's sense of timing, first broke the ice by taking shots at herself.
"I know a lot of you out there are saying: 'What does this lady know about sex?' " she told her stony-faced audience. "I read a lot."
Next, she tackled the question that has been as troublesome to civilian courts as to the military itself: What \o7 is\f7 sexual harassment?
"It's an act that's unwanted, unsolicited, repeated and of a sexual nature," Mitchell explained, adding: "It becomes sexual harassment when the action becomes offensive. . . . It's all based on the perception of whoever you're doing it to or telling it to."
If in doubt, Mitchell advised, don't.
"If you're harassing someone right now, marry them," she said, suggesting that today's courts are liable to be more lenient on a bigamist than a sexual predator.
Men harass women in 75% of all reported cases, while in 10% of the incidents the perpetrator and victim are of the same sex, Mitchell said.
In 15% of reported cases, she said, women harass men. Despite an increase in sexual-harassment complaints, both in the military and the civilian sectors, most cases are still settled with an apology, she said.
In interviews, Mitchell and high-ranking El Toro commanders noted that the military, though slow to mobilize on social issues, has been credited with reducing racism in its ranks far more thoroughly than has the civilian sector. They expressed confidence that military indoctrination will in time also make sexual discrimination and harassment a rarity.
Marines in Wednesday's class gave the course high marks, saying they hoped it would help put an end to a problem they view as a threat to Marines' honor.
"I thought it was superb," said Lt. Col. Henry (Skeeter) Commiskey. "A lot of it was new. A lot of it was also stuff you were aware of but you were not really conscious of until it was spoken."
Though half of all enlisted Marines are age 22 or younger--a population not noted for mature judgments on sexual or professional issues--the raw recruits are still young enough to be enlightened, base officials said.
In the meantime, Mitchell has a golden rule for Marines to live by: "Please ask yourself, 'If this were my spouse, my mother, my daughter, my significant other . . . how would I feel if they came home and told me they tolerated this on a daily basis?' "