Whether language or behavior constitutes sexual harassment depends on how it is interpreted by the one on the receiving end. For example, a suggestive joke might be very funny to one woman and considered offensive or sexual harassment by another. This is why women soldiers must learn to speak up for themselves. If they find language or behavior offensive, they need to say so at the time. Simple statements work, such as, Would you want someone to say that to your sister or your wife?; I don’t need to hear this kind of talk. (and then walk away); or It’s getting pretty raunchy here. How about cleaning this up. While this may seem obvious, many women don’t employ these skills. You may be the first leader, who tells them to take a stand for themselves and stop the behavior when it starts.
By taking the initiative to defend themselves, women not only appeal to the better side of men, who may not have realized that what they said could be offensive, they also confront those who are bullies and naturally expect women to be intimidated and back down. Even though the person making the comment may outrank her, women can and should respectfully request that the language stop. Inserting sir or sergeant into the statement is a simple matter, but she has to have the courage to take a stand. Taking action early to stop demeaning behavior keeps the situation from getting out of hand. Of course, women need to be prepared for the smart aleck reply of What’s wrong, can’t you take a joke? or We’re just kidding. An unemotional follow-up of I don’t consider this a joke. Let’s change the subject. usually works, especially if the woman takes the initiative to start talking about something else. There are a number of ways to handle this. Unfortunately, the technique that most women learn while growing up, which is to ignore the remark, look the other way, and leave the scene, doesn’t always work in the military.
If you have been clear about your standards and the requirement to respect everyone, regardless of their gender, your team will be stronger. Your women soldiers will know how to stand up for themselves and your men soldiers will be more alert to the ways in which their language can be interpreted. Profanity is not automatically sexual harassment.
Note: This is an extract from Women on Your Team by Colonel Jo B. Rusin