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The Tailhook Report

The Tailhook Report: Official Inquiry into the Events of Tailhook, 1992
by Office of the Inspector General. St. Martin's Press, 1993. $10.95 paper.
In a running joke with my friends, I have occasionally said that I maintain a file entitled "men are crazy." If I really did want to pull together such a set of materials, The Tailhook Report would have to be one of the centerpieces. More seriously, this report is must reading for all interested in seeking to understand the true dimensions of women's experiences with male sexual aggression.

After the courageous testimony of Anita Hill at the confirmation hearings of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sexual harassment became, almost overnight, the quintessential women's issue of the nineties. Certainly, the numbers of women exposed to this behavior are sobering: 42% of women workers in a survey by the federal government experienced some form of sexual harassment during the previous two years. Women students, both high school and college level, report similar levels of victimization. In the U.S. military, however, the dimensions of the problem are even more troubling; two out of every three women surveyed in a 1990 study of sexual harassment in the military said that they had been sexually harassed.

Any thoughtful person has read about the problem of sexual harassment and is reasonably familiar with the dreary litany of statistics like those cited above. Why, then, read a book about the topic and particularly a book about the problem in an institution that virtually no progressive supports? Taking the latter issue first, while the military is an institution that I would like to see dramatically downsized, there is no denying its power in contemporary society. If racism, homophobia and rampant sexual harassment are permitted in this setting, there is a clear and measurable spill over into other institutional arenas. Indeed, as this report clearly demonstrates, the virulence of the phenomenon in the military is another sobering reason to be extremely concerned about the power of military men and military perspectives in contemporary America.

But why another book on women's victimization? Surely everybody knows enough about these problems. I would argue that most people know far less than they imagine about all forms of women's victimization. Indeed, the lack of detailed information about domestic violence, date rape, and sexual harassment is one reason that the backlash against the women's movement has been able to contend, with a fair degree of success, that claims about the severity of these problems are unfounded and exaggerated. What has happened in this world of sound bites is that the facts of most women's experiences with harassment, abuse, and discrimination have been reduced to dry statistics. Because these are so high, the Right contends that they cannot possibly be accurate; instead, they are the product of the overreaction and oversensitivity of men hating, puritanical feminists.

The best way to combat this sort of perception of these problems is to read books like The Tailhook Report. The Office of the Inspector General can hardly be cast in the role of a feminazi front group, yet their dry, bureaucratic account of the events of the 35th Annual Tailhook Symposium, makes riveting and compelling reading.

On one weekend in September, 1991, over 4,000 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers met in a Las Vegas convention. Only about half of those in attendance registered for any of the professional aspects of the conference, and fewer still actually attended the events. Instead, these activities served largely as a bureaucratic justification for the use of official staff and resources; the real reason most attended was to participate in the "social" aspects of the event. As the report states: "many attendees viewed the annual conference as a type of 'free-fire zone' wherein they could act indiscriminately and without fear of censure or retribution in matters of sexual conduct and drunkenness" (p. 2).

Exactly what was meant by this becomes shockingly clear as the report details the compulsive, hostile and bizarre manner in which male sexuality expressed itself at this event. Probably the most widely discussed of the convention's activities was "the gauntlet," which actually referred to activity in a third floor hallway outside squadron hospitality suites.

In earlier Tailhook conventions, the gauntlet was "simply" a group of boisterous and drunken men who shoved each other, spilled and threw drinks, and hooted at and "rated" the women who passed by. By the 1991 Tailhook convention, though, the scene was more sinister. By eleven o'clock, the organized harassment and assaulting of women began in earnest. The nature of the hallway activity was deliberately obscured by the participants as efforts were made to lure unsuspecting women by officers pretending to be socializing in small, quiet groups. Then, after the women had entered, they would be suddenly surrounded, "groped and molested" (p. 44). In addition to having their breasts, genital area, and buttocks grabbed, many women's clothes were ripped or removed.

While some women apparently went through the gauntlet willingly, many were disturbed and attempted to fight back; the response to this behavior was to attack the women even more fiercely. In a particularly disturbing account, a college freshman was encouraged by older officers to drink and then was lured to the gauntlet area where she "was stripped from the waist down and then passed overhead and finally left on the hotel floor" (p. 49). The floor in the gauntlet area was saturated with beer, vomit and urine according to many reports.

The squadron hospitality suites attempted to "out do" one another in terms of popularity. Such competition appar- ently encouraged the use of "strippers, public nudity and consensual sexual acts." This language actually understates the sort of activity that occurred. Three of the behaviors that have stayed with me long after reading this book were "ball walking," "butt biting," and "leg shaving." Starting with the least bizarre, "leg shaving" involved a woman seated in a chair facing windows opening to a patio area while her legs were shaved by one or two officers. Actually, the shave was an "elaborate ritual" lasting between 30 and 45 minutes and often involved "other activities" such as men licking females' legs with their tongues to ensure "quality control" (p. 67) and women exposing their breasts and pubic areas during the process. In some instances, women had their pubic areas shaved.

"Butt biting" or "sharking" refers to individuals biting attendees on the buttocks." Apparently, while this behavior is sometimes "engaged in on a consensual basis at naval officers clubs," at Tailhook 91 the activity involved male officers biting the buttocks of female officers and workers. Some of these incidents involved male officers who were "streaking" through crowded areas at the time of the assaults (p. 71).

"HANG EM IF YOU GOT EM" was the logo emblazoned on the T-shirt of one "ballwalker" in attendance at Tailhook 90 (p. 63). Described by one participant as the "manly thing to do," ballwalking involves officers "publicly exposing their testicles" (p. 61). It is argued that ballwalking has its origins in naval activities in the Philippines and Korea. One officer opined that "this activity is OK for officers to do as long as there are not enlisted or outsiders present" (p. 64). Dozens of such incidents occurred during Tailhook 91, and many involved men exposing themselves to women. The book also contains an extensive and useful appendix which details specific assaults on women and men during the convention.

While one is tempted to laugh at some of the more absurd manifestations of the macho sexuality Tailhook 91 reveals, there is clearly a darker side to all of this. Rarely are we able to find an event that so starkly illustrates the bizarre and aggressive manner in which men sexually harass women. In the context of butt biting and ballwalking, Clarence Thomas's interest in pornography and pubic hair seems at once understandable and normative.

That women who complain of such behavior are initially characterized as insane, oversensitive, and humorless is less understandable once confronted with the kind of details contained in this report. Also amazing (but depressingly famil- iar to anyone who has been involved in cases alleging racism or sexism) is the degree to which discriminatory behaviors, however outrageous, are first tolerated and, if reported, covered up. The report details the fact that 117 officers were implicated in incidents of indecent assaults and/or indecent exposure, that hundreds of officers knew about these incidents and did nothing, and that 51 officers were found to have made false statements to the investigators (p. 2). Only because of the extraordinary courage of a few women who refused to be silenced, did the extensive nature of both the events of Tailhook and the high level cover-up of the affair become public.

In essence, The Tailhook Report provides an unusually thorough exploration of the dimensions of sexual harassment at one moment in time in one social institution—the U.S. military. Its significance, though, extends beyond that institution since sexual harassment is a feature of all women's experiences with the world. The texture, grit, and ugliness of the events de- scribed in this book supply important and timely material with which to rebut efforts of the Right to trivialize and minimize women's victimization.