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New focus on sexual harassment in U.S. military

Minnesota residents may have heard about the increased attention given recently to the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the nation's military. The issue took center stage recently when four former members of the military testified before Congress, telling their stories of being sexually harassed, molested or raped by other service members during their time serving the country.

One woman, who served on a bomb squad in Afghanistan, told of being raped by a fellow soldier. She said when she sought help from an Army chaplain, he dismissed her concerns, and that the man who raped her was never punished.

The congressional hearings took place a few days after an Air Force general threw out a pilot's sexual assault conviction. The victim in that case, a civilian woman, complained to NBC News that the Air Force did not appear to be taking enforcement of these cases seriously. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would investigate the matter.

Sexual harassment in the military has its own unique legal complications, but the issues are similar in many ways to those that come up with sexual harassment in civilian workplaces.

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission recognizes two types of sexual harassment under the Civil Rights Act: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo cases involve a supervisor or other authority figure demands that subordinate workers submit to or tolerate sexual harassment. One example would be when a boss demands an employee give sexual favors in order to receive a promotion.

The other type of sexual harassment is hostile work environment. In these cases, some kind of sexual conduct is unwelcome, based on sex and is so severe or pervasive that it creates an abusive or offensive working environment.

Victims of sexual harassment at work, or in the military, have legal options. It is important that victims understand their rights and options before deciding what to do. Sexual harassment is never okay, and the perpetrators deserve to be punished.

Source: USA Today, "Military sex assault victims come out of the 'shadows'," Gregg Zoroya, March 14, 2013.

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