The Army’s New Sexual Harassment Training Truly Looks Promising

Even if it’s not being billed as “sexual harassment training.”

Man in army fatigues standing behind a table talking to another man in a tee shirt, in front of a poster reading "Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault: Not in Our Army".
Master Sgt. Arthur Bynes, the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention coordinator with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command-Operational Command Post, talks to service members during a health fair in Kuwait on Dec. 2. Staff Sgt. Charlotte Reavis/DOD

During her six years in the Army, including a deployment to Iraq and promotion to staff sergeant, Antonieta Rico says she saw survivors of sexual assault and harassment who came forward labeled as troublemakers and leaders who preferred hiding problems to protect reputations rather than confronting them. She recalls being one of a handful of women in an anti–sexual assault and harassment training when the trainer, a more senior male officer, offered up this scenario: “ ‘So, if you saw a naked, drunk girl on the bench outside your barracks, would you hit that? You’re not supposed to. But I probably would,’ ” she recalls him saying. “That gets to the root of the problem right there. No one takes it seriously,” she says.

After years of intense scrutiny brought on by the Tailhook scandal of 1991, in which investigators brought more than 140 cases of sexual misconduct against those who assaulted more than 80 women, and after decades of congressionally mandated surveys and annual sexual assault trainings and countless unflattering media accounts, the U.S. military’s problem with sexual misconduct is hardly a secret. One in five active-duty women are sexually harassed every year, as are 7 percent of men. The number of alleged assaults reported militarywide shot up 10 percent in the past year. And while military leaders attributed the jump to more targets being willing to come forward, the 6,769 people who reported being assaulted represent the highest number of reported assaults since the military began tracking them in 2006.

These incidents reflect a workplace environment—the U.S. military is the largest employer in the world—where hostility to the presence of women runs deep. It’s not just that women, until recently, have been considered unfit and barred from combat roles. Think of grunts deriding those who “fight like a girl,” or officers who blithely talk about whether they should “open the kimono.” Sexism and harassment are so common that they have become expected, says Ellen Haring, a retired Army colonel who now serves as director of programs and research for the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, a group working to eradicate sexual assault and harassment from the military. “Sexual harassment has become normalized behavior,” Haring says. “There’s a lot of groupthink in the military, so a lot of behavior we think is unacceptable anywhere else, they’ll say, ‘It’s to toughen you up. Make you ready for combat.’

“I don’t think it’s much better than when I joined in 1984,” she adds. “We’ve at least acknowledged sexual harassment and assault and are providing support for victims. But we don’t know how to stop it.”

The military’s sexual misconduct problem is also structural: It took until 2013 for Congress to decide that felony sex offenders should no longer receive waivers to join the military. It took two years longer to prohibit using the “good soldier” defense in sexual assault cases—though it’s still permissible in domestic abuse cases. Military leaders have repeatedly vowed to change—Secretary James Mattis recently promised to redouble efforts to prevent the destructive “cancer” of sexual assault—and through the years have tried trainings, reformed the system so victims wouldn’t have to report to officers who may have abused them, and even created a hologram project to highlight that men, too, are victims of sexual abuse and harassment.

Yet, as the numbers show, that’s not been enough. And as more women put their lives on the line for their country, there’s more urgency than ever for leaders to make good on their promise to root out sexual harassment and assault in this testosterone-fueled culture.

Now the Army is experimenting with something new: sexual assault and harassment training that isn’t actually billed as sexual assault and harassment training at all.

“We call it leadership development training,” says retired Army Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason, who, along with fellow soldiers, developed the new approach when he saw how the typical Power Point–heavy sexual harassment training was met with eye-rolling, groans, and inaction. “They didn’t want to hear it anymore. But everyone in the Army wants to go to leadership development training.”

The idea of this new approach is to shift soldiers’ mindsets from thinking about sexual misconduct as a list of prohibited activities to focusing on the mission of the Army: fighting and winning the nation’s wars. With that goal in mind, participants are then forced to examine how their own attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs—about women, about who belongs in the military, about how warriors should act—either help or get in the way of accomplishing that mission. The idea is to create cognitive dissonance between the ideal conduct demanded of the mission and the destructive behaviors, like sexual harassment and assault, that impede it, Fenlason says. And, in the process, get soldiers to recognize how sexism has become the social norm in the military and begin to instead build a culture of “dignity and respect.”

If you need to field an effective unit to fight wars, a trainer might ask, and an effective unit can only function well when each member can fully trust the others to have their backs, is there room for bullying? For turning a blind eye to excessive drinking or failing to recognize the signs of depression? For tolerating crude or racist jokes, or looking away when a comrade is sexually harassed or sexually assaults another? “That way,” Fenlason explains, “we’re able to reframe the discussion from ‘You’re a perpetrator, here’s how long you’re going to jail if we catch you/ You’re a victim, here’s the services we provide you,’ and call people more to the ideal of the profession.”

In a pilot study, more than 900 soldiers at Georgia’s Fort Stewart participated in this mindset-shifting program, called Mind’s Eye II, in early 2018, and researchers are tracking a smaller set to see whether the new approach works.

Preliminary results appear promising. After the program, participants are showing higher levels of trust, more knowledge about the severity of the problem, and more willingness to intervene. They also demonstrate more empathy to survivors. “We don’t consider this conclusive evidence yet, but we’re very encouraged,” says Jessica Marcon Zabecki, a research psychologist studying the pilot for the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP.

Rico, who is now director of communications and policy for SWAN, was initially skeptical that any training or program could change the military’s hostile culture toward women. She had good reason to be. The research is clear: In many male-dominated environments, including the military, sexual harassment and assault are often not about sexual attraction at all, but power. A 2018 Department of Defense report found that the majority of perpetrators are men at the sergeant noncommissioned officer grade, and the majority of victims are lower-ranking service members.

The harassing behaviors are used as weapons to show that women and others who don’t conform to conventional masculine norms aren’t welcome, aren’t fit to do the job, and don’t belong. A culture of pervasive sexual harassment drives women out of the service, prevents them from rising to positions of leadership, and keeps them from wanting to join in the first place, all of which serves to entrench the macho status quo.

Then Rico went through an early version of the Mind’s Eye approach. There was no droning on during a boring Power Point. No do’s and don’ts. Fenlason instead had the group think about what kind of leaders they wanted to be, what standards they expected people to live up to, and what behaviors start to cross that line. Participants spent time, eyes closed, imagining the beginnings of a sexual assault, then had to picture that it was someone they cared most about in the world being assaulted. Fenlason gave the group ideas for how they could intervene, drawn from the research on bystander intervention training, which has shown promising results in military settings. “All of a sudden, it’s personal,” Rico says. “People were really energized.”

Rico thinks the mindset and leadership training could be part of an effective strategy to change culture. “A lot of the time, when you tell someone there’s a sexual assault, sexual harassment training going on, you kind of get defensive and think, ‘Hey, my guys aren’t going to do this,’ ” Rico says. “But with this, you feel like it’s something that’s going to help you as a leader, in any situation, to really think about the things you will and will not tolerate.”

That is why Fenlason started the program in the first place. When he was deployed to Iraq in 2005, he was asked to take over a troubled platoon. One of his soldiers raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl then killed her, her parents, and her 6-year-old sister. The crime was “covered up” inside his platoon for 90 days before the perpetrator was court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison—a dark and jarring episode recounted in the book Black Hearts. Once home, Fenlason went into a period of deep introspection. Thinking how his own Army training had failed him as a leader, and what it would take to get leadership right, led him to develop the Mind’s Eye II program. “You have to know when you’re going to stand up and say, ‘No,’ ” Fenlason says. “And not many people do.”

The Air Force’s Jessica Gallus, a psychologist with the Integrated Resilience Office who worked with Fenlason on Mind’s Eye II, is quick to point out that it isn’t just the military that has a problem with sexual harassment and abuse—a recent report from my team at the Better Life Lab at New America found sexual harassment is pervasive in virtually every industry in every sector. “It’s a societal issue,” Gallus says. The military just happens to track it better than anyone else.

And while the military’s sexual harassment and assault numbers indeed look bad, the military also has a record of leading the way in dealing with many of the country’s seemingly intractable societal issues. The military desegregated by executive order in 1948 while Jim Crow laws were still alive and well in many parts of the country. Now, racial and ethnic minority groups make up 40 percent of those on active duty. The military adopted drug testing and substance abuse programs at a time when illicit drug use peaked in the 1970s, and when 43 percent of those who served in Vietnam used heroin or opium. Now, rates of illicit drug use in the military have fallen to less than 1 percent. And while the nation still struggles with finding and affording high-quality child care, within a decade in the 1980s, the military began operating one of the best child care systems anywhere in the world.

So why couldn’t the military take the lead on preventing sexual harassment and assault? Even if they call it leadership training. “I don’t know if we changed the minds of many egotistical or Neanderthalic men about the worth of women. But I think we changed the way they saw things: This is the way it’s going to be, and if this happens in our unit, then you’re not going to survive,” says Col. Jeffrey Denius, now with Special Operations Command, who oversaw some early Mind’s Eye training at Fort Stewart. “Then I think we actually did change some hearts and minds.”