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What Was the Tailhook Scandal?

The Tailhook Scandal erupted in 1991, exposing a culture of sexual harassment within the U.S. Navy at their annual Tailhook Association Symposium. Over 100 aviators were implicated in acts of misconduct, leading to widespread outrage and calls for reform. This pivotal moment sparked a reevaluation of military ethics. How did this scandal change the armed forces? Read on to explore the impact.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Tailhook scandal was a United States military scandal that took place in 1991, but the implications of the event were so far-reaching that they continued to be felt in the U.S. military, especially in the Navy, into the 21st century. Numerous people's careers were destroyed as a result of the Tailhook scandal, and the incident carried a heavy stigma for years. The event also attracted widespread public attention because it highlighted gender issues in the U.S. Navy and Marines, and it raised questions about the efficacy of the U.S. military justice system.

Accusations of Harassment and Assault

The Tailhook Scandal took place in Las Vegas.
The Tailhook Scandal took place in Las Vegas.

The events of the Tailhook scandal took place at an annual symposium held by the Tailhook Association, an organization that promotes naval aviation; the name is a reference to the specialized hook on aircraft that is designed to grip the decks of aircraft carriers. After the symposium in Las Vegas, 83 women and seven men came forward with accusations of sexual harassment and assault, sparking an investigation into conduct at the conference.

Extensive Investigation

The Pentagon's Inspector General and the Naval Investigative Service both looked into events at the Tailhook Conference, questioning more than 1,000 of the estimated 5,000 attendees and ultimately referring 140 to the Navy and Marines for further investigation and punishment. Seventy of the cases were dropped almost immediately, and the remainder of the offenders were lightly punished.

Ramifications of the Scandal

Many innocent attendees were caught up in the wake of the Tailhook scandal, however. People who had attended the 1991 conference found themselves unable to advance in military careers, and the scandal essentially acted as a taint on the names of all attendees, even if they were cleared. The failure to punish offenders more severely also attracted public attention and anger, especially from feminists, and it highlighted the gender issues faced by the Navy and Marines as more women have chosen to serve in those branches. In response, clearer sexual harassment policies were instituted, along with programs for anonymous reporting of sexual harassment and assault.

Ultimately, the Tailhook scandal ensnared the U.S. Senate, high-ranking officials from numerous government agencies and a huge number of ordinary members of the military. The Navy decided to sever its ties with the Tailhook Association in 1991 in response to the unfolding events, and it wasn't until 1999 that the Navy and the Tailhook Association mended their rift. Accusations of improper interrogation and evidence collection tactics abounded during the 1992 and 1993 investigations into the scandal, and the much of the alleged abuse at the conference has never been proved.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Tailhook scandal?

The Tailhook scandal refers to a series of incidents that occurred during the 35th Annual Tailhook Symposium in September 1991, where more than 100 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and 7 men. The event took place at the Las Vegas Hilton, and the scandal exposed widespread issues of sexual harassment and misconduct within the military.

How did the Tailhook scandal come to light?

The Tailhook scandal was exposed after Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, a Navy helicopter pilot, reported that she had been sexually assaulted at the symposium. Her courage in coming forward prompted other victims to share their experiences, leading to a full investigation. The scandal gained national attention, highlighting the need for reform in the military's approach to gender relations and sexual misconduct.

What were the consequences of the Tailhook scandal?

As a result of the Tailhook scandal, the careers of several high-ranking officers were affected, with some facing demotions, while others were forced into early retirement. The incident led to the implementation of new policies and training aimed at preventing sexual harassment and assault in the military. It also sparked a broader public discourse on the treatment of women in the armed forces and the importance of accountability for such actions.

Did the Tailhook scandal lead to any policy changes within the military?

Yes, the Tailhook scandal prompted significant policy changes within the military. It led to the establishment of the Defense Department's Task Force on Women in the Military and the creation of new training programs to address sexual harassment. Additionally, the scandal accelerated the integration of women into combat roles and increased oversight of military conduct, reinforcing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct.

How has the Tailhook scandal influenced military culture in the long term?

In the long term, the Tailhook scandal has had a profound impact on military culture by raising awareness of sexual harassment and assault within the ranks. It has led to ongoing efforts to improve the reporting process for victims, enhance prevention training, and hold perpetrators accountable. The scandal also contributed to a gradual shift towards greater gender equality in the military, although challenges remain in fully addressing the issue.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


I remember this as I was in the Air Force when it happened. I found it strange that the allegations were being made during a conference and not on board ships. Being in close quarters for extended periods of time makes it more probable.

Although I was not an attendee at the conference and do not know what went on, I do have to say as a past service member, that conferences like this are large arenas for the attendees to let loose and have fun.

The problem with it is that you are mixing high-ranking officials and the enlisted in a relaxed, party type of environment. This is fraternization and there are rules about this in the military to keep situations like this from happening.


what was the exact date of this scandal?

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    • The Tailhook Scandal took place in Las Vegas.
      By: Gainford Girl
      The Tailhook Scandal took place in Las Vegas.