Sexual harassment, bureaucracy and discretionary power in the US military

Woman soldierby Stephanie Bonnes

In the recent news several instances of sexual harassment and sexual abuse have been brought to light. These cases of sexual abuse highlight how powerful men, such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer can use their positions to exploit, harass, and cause harm to others.

There has been less focus on how these individuals were made powerful and protected by institutions that both enabled them to harass and gave them the tools through which they could cause harm. In my research, I explore the intersection between bureaucracy and harassment in the context of the United States military.

Earlier this year “Marines United” was identified as a closed Facebook group where over 30,000 servicemen shared nude photos of servicewomen. Many of the comments following the identification of “Marines United” asked whether the military had policies and regulations as well as avenues to prosecute servicemembers for online activities. We often understand policies, rules, and regulations as ways to prevent, address, and punish those who might perpetrate sexual harassment and abuse.

However, my research shows that it is also important to recognize the discretionary power that individuals have in interpreting, carrying out, and implementing organizational rules, policies, and regulations. The interplay between organizational polices, workplace climate, and individuals in power can lead to sexual abuse in the workplace.

In a recently published article, I use the term “bureaucratic harassment” to explain workplace harassment where bureaucracy is both the tool that perpetrators use to harass, as well as their source of power over others in the organization.

Through in-depth interviews with U.S. Servicewomen, I explore the bureaucratic dimension to harassment in the workplace and outline how servicemen implemented policies and rules in ways that damaged the reputation and careers of their female counterparts. Importantly, these servicemen would not be able to manipulate administrative procedures if the military as an organization did not include features such as high levels of discretion, a strict hierarchy, and workplace expectations that encourage commanders to regulate the personal lives of those who work for them.

For example, a white enlisted Marine recounted her attempt to report an instance of sexual harassment she experienced. She was told by her commander that, if forced to investigate, they would cancel her Christmas leave. She said, “It was clear that this was a threat. I was asked, ‘Do [you] really want to ruin this man’s career? If we have to go forward, we will have to cancel your leave.’” The threat of not being able to go home for leave after experiencing sexual harassment intimidated her into dropping the report.

In another case, a Latina Captain in the Army recalled how a fellow Captain tried to establish a paper trail that demonstrated she was a lazy solider because she had recently given birth. He used the bureaucratic system to achieve this despite his lack of authority to do so (they were the same rank). She said

I need to have a pregnancy profile in place. So, a pregnancy profile involves having an Army doctor signing an Army piece of paper saying that I had a baby. What the hell is wrong with our regular doctor saying this? Well I guess the Army doctor is special (laughing) so they want me to take time out of my civilian day … not paying me … and have me go to an Army doctor … so that they don’t have to have me take a PT [physical training/test] for six months after I give birth. But since there’s no pregnancy profile in place I am now subject to these regulations. And I am like, ‘Well, are you going to send me to the doctor?’ And he said, ‘No.’ Well then, fucking fine! So, then he put an administrative flag on me to say that I am a fat soldier.

This same captain repeatedly issued administrative sanctions for small and non-existent “infractions” to try to portray her as poor service-member to their commander.

These two examples show how bureaucratic procedures are both the source of power enabling harassers (through their rank and status) as well as the tools through which they achieve harassment. In the first example, a commander threatens to take away an earned and approved leave to intimidate a Marine out of reporting sexual harassment. In the second example, a white male captain mobilizes social power derived from his race and gender to try to control a solider of his same rank through the bureaucratic system. She had to spend time and resources to get the administrative flag removed.

The military’s organizational hierarchy lends legitimacy to commanders’ treatment of those who work for them. Additionally, the military allows commanders high levels of discretion in assigning work activities, evaluating employees, approving leave, promotions, and transfers, and in disciplinary actions. This discretion is often unchecked as it is understood as an essential part of military operations and success.

Thus, when individuals cause harm through military bureaucracy, many victims perceive this treatment as legitimate since it occurs through official organizational channels. The women in my study did not often report their experiences with bureaucratic harassment. Instead they spent time and resources fighting infractions levied against them and many ended up leaving the military.

The women in my study experienced many consequences as a result of the initial administrative strike including: being forced to transfer units, being forced to stay in units with perpetrators of sexual abuse, having a negative record of service that delayed promotion, and almost losing qualifications they earned through education and training.

One servicewoman was sent to a mental institution after telling her therapist that after an attempted rape she was “very depressed and I want to hurt myself.”  Her institutionalization was used against her: “I reported it, what happened … I did undisclosed reporting so only my commander knew … Come to find out, I reported it, they investigated it, and it was his word against mine and of course because I was technically crazy, they didn’t believe me … Then when I went to get out of the Navy, I got this code that said I have a personality disorder.” The symptoms of her rape were used against her to question her credibility, dismiss her case, and ultimately to label her as having a personality disorder which served to sever her post-service medical benefits.

This tactic is not unique to this case, the Veteran Affairs Committee has accused the military of improper use of personality disorder diagnosis to medically separate servicemembers from the military so that they do not have to pay for post-service medical benefits. Thus, the consequences of bureaucratic harassment are felt on an interpersonal and organizational level and have severe effects on servicewomen’s military careers and their post-service lives.

My research aims to make visible the interplay between organizational features, such as hierarchy and discretion, gendered and raced workplace climates, and the manipulation of institutional policies, that facilitates harassment and protects perpetrators as well as to outline the unique consequences of harassment that is achieved through official organizational structures.

Stephanie Bonnes is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This article summarizes findings from “The Bureaucratic Harassment of U.S. Servicewomen” in Gender & Society.

Image: Brigid Farrell

1 comment
  1. smithea1 said:

    Thank you for this work. With all the “sexual harassment” accusations taking place in society (everywhere) would it be important to say, exactly, what sexual harassment means? Touch, push, kiss, finger, rape? What exactly do we mean when we say that sexual harassment has taken place in the military workplace?

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