Two in three British Army personnel have heard sexual jokes, stories and sexually explicit language at work, while a third have received unwelcome comments or have been sent sexually explicit material.
Research for the Army’s sexual harassment 2021 report, which surveyed 4,751 personnel, asked servicemen and women about their experiences of both “generalised” sexualised behaviours, which relate to culture and the working environment, and “targeted” sexualised behaviours, which are aimed at individuals.
Although the overall percentage reporting sexual harassment in the Army has reduced since the research was last carried out in 2018, the report suggests lewd behaviour is still present in the Army’s culture. There has also been an increase in coercive sexual favours and physical assault.
It was published as the Ministry of Defence published its zero tolerance approach to sexual offences, covering the Army, Royal Navy, RAF. Where proven, personnel convicted of a sexual offence will be discharged from the armed forces.
One in 20 have observed a situation they perceived to be sexual harassment. These service personnel were more likely to be women than men.
Significantly more people in 2021 thought sexual harassment is a problem in some parts of the Army than in 2018. In contrast, significantly fewer said it was a problem in their unit or team.
Asked about particularly upsetting experiences, service personnel reported being touched in an uncomfortable way, receiving unwelcome comments and unwelcome attempts to talk about sexual matters. These mainly took place while working, and most commonly came from a colleague, males and those among lower-ranks of the Army.
Alcohol was involved in around a third of the particularly upsetting experiences reported.
The majority of those who had had an upsetting experience did not tell anyone at work, with many feeling that nothing would be done about it. Very few sought support from formal channels such as welfare personnel, helplines, EDI advisers and Chaplaincy.
Asked about why they had not made a formal complaint, a fifth felt nothing would be done about it and one in 20 did not know how to.
The report concludes that the majority of service personnel feel positive about the way the Army deals with sexual harassment, but some feel the chain of command creates problems and that there is a wide range of beliefs and attitudes regarding what constitutes sexual harassment.
“The findings suggest that sexual harassment, especially that experienced by women, is part of a wider cultural issue within the Army. Both focus group discussion and qualitative comments refer to ‘outdated’ attitudes towards women and gender, which have resulted in unhelpful ways of viewing women and fully integrating them,” the report says.
It found that stereotypical or sexualised perceptions of women “have led to some men not knowing how to behave around [them]” either because they have not worked with them previously or because they fear causing offence.
“There are several factors specific to the military, such as the male dominated environment, that have enabled these attitudes to perpetuate and become part of the military culture,” the report says.
“This male dominated ‘macho’ culture can also restrict some men from speaking out about inappropriate behaviours that they have experienced themselves or observed.”
The report says the findings will be “used to form recommendations and interventions to be acted on by the Army and MoD”. It does not make any specific recommendations about how sexual harassment and lewd behaviour can be tackled.
An Army spokesperson said: “The Army is clear that all forms of unacceptable behaviour, including sexual harassment and bullying, have no place in an inclusive and respectful Armed Forces.
“We have introduced a range of changes to ensure our people are aware of the standards of behaviour expected. We do not tolerate sexual harassment and encourage people to call it out.”
Minister for defence people and veterans, Leo Docherty said: “Sexual offences and sexual relationships between instructors and trainees have no place in defence, or wider society, and a zero tolerance approach will ensure our commitment to providing a better working environment for our serving personnel is met.
“We are sending a clear message that the women and men of the Armed Forces must uphold our values and standards.”