A Poor Definition


Hello, Friends.

I have found myself recently in several locations where I have to attempt to define “military sexual trauma.”  The official VA definition according to US Code is below:

It is “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.” Sexual harassment is further defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.”

Wow – talk about a mouth full!  Believe it or not – I was actually my unit’s EO person when I left the unit.  I know…the EO Rep being the one who was victimized is pretty crazy…to say the least.

When I taught EO and Sexual Harrassment I tried to do it in a way that was fun and interesting.  No dry, boring slides for me!!  I believed that if there was an interesting dynamic – that there would be more willingness to listen.  I always started with a inappropriate joke – one that would upset the men and one that would upset the women.  Then we would discuss why they were “offended.”

There are really two types of sexual harrassment:  Quid pro Quo and Hostile Environment. 

Quid pro Quo is literally – this for that.  I see a whole lot of this in the military – and sometimes, because the victim “gained something in return” they don’t really feel that they were assaulted.  Sometimes it is sexual conduct in exchange for better duty, rank or things of a similar nature.  Sometimes it is sexual conduct just to survive!  Servicemembers pressured into sexual contact just so that they can live a normal life.  In some ways I refer to this as the “protective rapist.”  Because you “belong” to someone in the unit – usually of higher rank – you are no longer a target for guys looking for a hookup.  You are off limits.  However, being in an inappropriate relationship isn’t necessarily “rape.”  After all, we control our sexuality by our own choice. 

Hostile Environment is a different matter.  This is when the area that you are working in is completely and totally offensive to you for either your gender or your unwillingness to engage in sexual behavior.  This can be anything from the nude catalog on the wall in the platoon room (yes, males can experience this too – maybe they are offended by a group of women with naked men hanging in the workplace!)  Hostility towards your rank or your position and deliberate attacks on your or your job.  Poor NCOERs when you have done nothing to earn a poor rating.

Perhaps it is easiest to define what sexual harrassment/MST isn’t.  First of all – this is very individually specific at times.  So let’s look at one example.

You are out on a smoke break at the picnic table with members of your platoon.  One of the NCO’s starts telling a dirty joke.  You sit and listen and then complain because you were offended.  Is this sexual harrassment?

No – it’s not.  You could have gotten up and left.  There was nothing holding you there.  It may be an example of “hostile environment” if it reflects the deeper culture of the unit – but sometimes a joke is just a joke.

Let’s look at the same situation in another environment – like a platoon formation.  Now you are bound to stay and listen to the dirty joke.  You cannot leave.  This is that hostile environment that reflects the unit’s culture – if leadership believes it is acceptable to share offensive material to a captive audience.

That isn’t necessarily a male/female thing either.  It can be a religious preference of the person.  Their personally held beliefs cause them to find it offensive.

I have come to believe in the “comfort factor.”  If you are having “creeped out feelings” then you are probably heading into a bad situation.  Don’t be afraid to chronicle the things that are going on.  You will probably never find “justice” from the military – but those supporting documents will give you a leg up with proving your claim at the VA.

Don’t be afraid to speak out, either.  Even in uniform.  Not all leaders are pigs.  For the purpose of this post – I will say not all men are pigs.  Talk to them, quietly and out of the range of others.  They may not even realize they have been offensive! 

I had a similiar situation when I was EO.  Both the female subordinate and the male leader were friends of mine.  The male leader was actually a pretty good guy – he used to make jokes every now and again that he kept me around for “Hot coffee and clean tent floors.”  I was never offended by those jokes because it was a “private” joke – not spoken in front of strangers – and his behavior toward me never indicated that he saw me as less of a soldier than a man.  Well – I will be danged if he didn’t make the same joke to my female friend who had just gotten transferred into the platoon and it seriously offended her.  Of course it would – it was just bad timing and she had never really worked with him.

He truly wanted to make it right.  He apologized profusely to both her and her spouse who was also in the unit.  He explained that it was really meant to be funny and that he was really, really sorry.  It worked itself out.

Was that a “hostile environment?”  I think it was – from her point of view.  But it was not on purpose – it was just a careless word that was later regretted. 

I was so proud of her for stepping forward and making an issue of it.  She set her boundaries – that was good!  Luckily – this leader was a good one – and saw the mistake he had made and took responsibility.  They worked together fine after that.

Unfortunately – not every story ends like that.  It is really too bad.  Of course, this post has nothing to do with rape, but I hope it helps some readers better understand the problems.

More to come!

Joan

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