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Sexual Harassment & Assault in the Military
Equity, Military Sexual Assault, Power, Safety, Survivors
Too many service members — including women, women of color and men — have endured sexual assault, but have been forced to suffer in silence for fear of being dismissed, or worse, retaliated against for coming forward. Enough is enough.
- Sexual harassment in the military is alarmingly high: In 2018, there were 20,500 reported cases of service members that were sexually assaulted or raped, including 13,000 women. In a briefing obtained by PBS NewsHour, the Army admitted that soldiers are more likely to be raped by someone of their own uniform than to be shot by the enemy.
- The vast majority of cases go unreported. 76% of survivors did not report a crime from 2017 to 2018. Over 1 in 4 survivors who did not report feared retaliation.
- Retaliation is pervasive. 73% of retaliation reports alleged that retaliators were in the reporter’s chain of command.
- The power imbalance is clear. The majority of survivors were harassed by someone in their chain of command and two-thirds of service-members who reported retaliation after filing a sexual assault complaint were women.
- Our national security is at risk. More than 1 in 4 survivors of sexual assault or harassment/discrimination took steps to leave the military as a result, undermining force readiness.
How do we address sexual harassment in the military?
First, we need to overhaul the military’s approach to combatting sexual harassment assault. The current system, which puts commanding officers in charge of prosecuting sexual assault cases, is clearly not working. Because the chain of command is involved in prosecution process, survivors are often afraid to report sexual assault or harassment out of fear of retaliation or because of lack of faith in the system due to inherent conflicts of interest.
It’s time for these decisions to be taken out of the chain of command and instead place this authority in the hands of independent authorities. This approach has been endorsed by the independent review commission created by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
But we don’t just want to address sexual violence when it happens — we also want to fix the broader culture that has undermined women’s participation in the military for generations, including underrepresentation in leadership positions and biased physical training and equipment standards. Doing so will not only create a safer and more equitable work environment — it will also ensure force readiness, retention, and military effectiveness, all of which are critical to U.S. national security.
What is happening right now to address sexual assault in the military?
In April 2020, the death of Specialist Vanessa Guillen–a service member at the Fort Hood military base who was murdered after being sexually harassed– brought attention to the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military. A formal examination of the circumstances of her death made it clear that this was not an isolated incident at Fort Hood, but rather a pervasive issue throughout the armed forces.
In response, the Army launched a three-month independent review at Fort Hood, which ultimately found that the command culture and climate within the armed forces was ineffective in preventing assaults and protecting vulnerable personnel — especially women and women of color.
“... I was a commander. So I understand how important this issue has been for the military commanders to keep these types of decisions within the military chain of command. But I’m also a survivor of sexual assault. And I have done everything I can think of in the past six years, my first term of office to work within the existing structure and system to do better for sexual assault survivors.”
“We’ve been looking at ways to put more prevention in our bill to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place. One of the best ways to prevent these crimes are more convictions...it’s a change that creates a perception that justice is possible”
The Biden administration and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have signaled they are serious about addressing harassment and assault in the military.
- The Bipartisan Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act — cosponsored by Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) and Senator Ernst (R-IA) — is an important first step. The Act would create an impartial, fair, and accountable military justice system for sexual assault and other serious crimes, as well as provide additional prevention measures. Specifically, it would change how the military prosecutes serious crimes and move the prosecution out of the chain of command and under the authority of trained, independent military prosecutors.
- The Biden-Harris administration launched a 90-day commission–led by Lynn Rosenthal, the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women under President Obama–to propose policies, programs, and policies to fix the broken system that has allowed sexual harassment and assault to persist, with little consequence, for far too long.
- Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks — the highest-ranking woman to ever serve at the Pentagon — will lead a new task force on diversity and inclusion within the military, among other issues.
- President Biden’s newest COVID-relief package includes funding for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence — an historic investment that will ensure the safety of survivors and prevention.
As the nation’s largest workplace, addressing sexual assault in the military is critical to ensuring safer and more equitable work environments for all— in addition to ensuring force readiness, retention, and military effectiveness. We join advocates in calling for long overdue action to ensure our service members are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Text TIME’S UP to 306-44 to join the movement for safe, fair, and dignified work in the military and across industries. Take action now.