What Politicians Don't Say About the Military's Sexual Assault 'Epidemic'

What Politicians Don't Say About the Military's Sexual Assault 'Epidemic'

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Navy.

When I joined the U.S. military in January 2011, a family member asked me: “Aren’t you worried about being raped?” And she wasn’t the only one. Many people cautioned me that I would be entering an institution synonymous with machismo, authoritarianism, and violence.

What I found instead was very different: professionalism, respect, and a strong presence of women in the highest ranks. I also found the most transparent, aggressive, and in-your-face Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program I had ever witnessed.

At bases in Great Lakes, Pensacola, and San Diego, I have received regular and frequent sexual assault prevention training. There have been posters with information about how to report sexual assault in every workspace and bathroom. And forms for reporting sexual assault have been prominently displayed.

Trained male and female Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and SAPR Victim Advocates (VAs) have made it a point of introducing themselves, sharing their phone numbers, and making themselves available to their fellow sailors. Chaplains and health care providers have similarly signaled their readiness to help.

Since my first days in boot camp, I have also received training regarding the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and even been required to memorize its articles. Article 120 of the UCMJ addresses rape, which is punishable by death. Article 128 addresses other forms of assault.

Under the UCMJ, any military service member or even retiree can be punished for offenses (UCMJ Article 77), including accessories (78) and anyone who conspires in the punishable activity (87). People who attempt to commit an offense and fail to succeed may also be court-martialed (80). And offenders may be punished for any lesser included offenses (79).

So even if the preponderance of evidence fails to support a conviction for rape or sexual assault, an accused soldier may still be discharged from the military and punished for a related offense like failure to obey an order (92), cruelty toward and maltreatment of a subordinate (93), unbecoming conduct (133), fraternization (134), or providing alcohol to a minor (134).

If service members fail to obtain justice through the regular process, which is largely at the discretion of their Commanding Officers (COs), there already is a way for them to circumvent the CO and file a complaint of wrongs against the CO under UCMJ Article 138. 

That is why I have been surprised to hear U.S. Senators imply that service members currently have no recourse outside their CO and that a new, parallel organizational structure is needed.

Our sexual assault awareness training has articulated a highly victim-friendly standard for defining sexual assault. It has stressed affirmative consent, i.e., that for sexual activity NOT to be defined as sexual assault, consent must be freely and affirmatively communicated between both partners at every step during sexual activity, and both partners must be physically and mentally able to give consent. Any ambiguity, we’ve been taught, could harm the accused more than the accuser. Silence, or the absence of a “no,” does not imply consent. A drunk or drugged partner is automatically assumed to be non-consenting.

Potential offenders in our midst have also been warned–and hopefully deterred–by the many stories we’ve been told about harsh punishments meted out to military service members who have been found guilty of sexual assault in recent years. Perpetrators have not only been dismissed from the Armed Services but imprisoned, sometimes for lengthy periods.

Compare all this to the model for sexual assault prevention and response at the institution I belonged to before the military–Harvard College. There, complaints of sexual assault are filed with the Administrative Board, or “Ad Board,” comprised of deans and faculty members. The written policies regarding sexual assault are far less favorable to victims, requiring non-consent to be expressed “verbally or physically” and requiring the Ad Board members to be “sufficiently persuaded” that an assault occurred.

In stark contrast to the stories I’ve heard about military perpetrators landing up in Leavenworth Prison, Harvard’s history of dealing with sexual assault cases might easily give more encouragement to perpetrators than victims. 

During my time at Harvard College, between 2005 and 2009, I had one friend who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student, another who was beaten by her boyfriend (a fellow student), and another who was involved in a highly improper and abusive relationship with a professor. Not one of these incidents was ever reported.

In the five years from 2005 to 2010, according to the Harvard Crimson, eight cases of sexual misconduct were brought before Harvard’s Ad Board. Only three perpetrators were required to withdraw from Harvard College for at least six months, and none received a permanent expulsion.

To place the military’s sexual assault problem in a wider context, here are some illustrative numbers. According to an anonymous survey, service members may have experienced as many as 26,000 instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012. In other words, about 6.1% of female service members and 1.2% of male service members experienced unwanted sexual contact that year. Note that this number includes a substantial number of cases that occurred before the victim entered the military, as well as cases involving civilian perpetrators.

Although it is difficult to make direct comparisons due to differences in the way survey questions are asked, rates of sexual assault outside the military appear to be similar–if not higher. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 6.7% of all women had experienced sexual violence, rape, or attempted rape in the 12-month period preceding the study. Since sexual assault rates are highest among the young, the CDC finding implies that the incidence of sexual assault is even higher than 6.7% among military-aged women. The CDC also found that between 20 and 25 percent of women, and approximately 6.1 percent of men, are victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault while they are in college.

So perhaps, instead of being a punching bag on Capitol Hill, the military should be studied as a model for sexual assault awareness, prevention, and response policy, especially among young people aged 18 to 24. And perhaps that model should be exported to the nation’s college campuses, where sexual assault is equally prevalent but far more hidden; where sexual assault policies and practices are outdated; and where the fear of litigation or falling rankings makes university administrations reluctant to expel offenders and eager to brush the problem under the carpet.


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