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Military Sexual Assault Reform Stalls Again

Pentagon estimates suggest that tens of thousands of "unwanted sexual contacts" happen every year in the military. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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Yet another attempt at addressing the epidemic of military sexual assault just failed in Congress, illustrating the vicious partisan divide on the subject that’s making it nearly impossible to enact needed legislation to protect servicemembers across the United States and abroad. The Pentagon itself, along with numerous third party organizations and government agencies, has identified military sexual assault as a pernicious problem that needs to be addressed with fundamental changes to the reporting and prosecuting process, but attempts by members of Congress like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to address this problem have run up against brick walls.

The issue has become a hallmark cause for Senator Gillibrand, who wants to take the authority for handling rape cases out of the chain of command and make it the responsibility of outside military prosecutors. She, and many supporters, argue that this would resolve many of the issues that are making it difficult for rape survivors to come forward and receive fair treatment in their cases. Advocates argue that in addition to increasing the chances of seeing a positive outcome in the wake of sexual assault, the legislation will also protect the careers and livelihoods of victims and survivors.

Pentagon estimates suggest that tens of thousands of “unwanted sexual contacts” happen every year in the military, including sexual harassment, assault and rape. More than half of the victims are men. Many male victims of rape in the military are reluctant to speak out because they fear being mocked or stigmatized in addition to facing the litany of problems all sexual assault victims in the military have to weigh before coming forward.

Within the military, the chain of command currently forces victims to go to their superior officers to report sexual harassment or assault—even when those superior officers are themselves rapists, or are friendly with perpetrators of such crimes. Rape victims may be too afraid to come forward in those circumstances, and when they do, they can face retaliation not just from senior officers, but from others of the same rank. Reporters may find themselves driven out of the military or deprived of opportunities for promotion, a career-ruining move that can also feel like a betrayal for those who joined the military out of a genuine love of the armed services and a desire to pursue a lifelong career in the military. Victims may be dealing with post traumatic stress and other psychological strain from the rape itself while being revictimized by a military justice system that isn’t adequate to their needs—and in some cases, some rape victims risk not just their careers but also their lives when they choose to report.

Senator Gillibrand and others want to change the reporting and prosecution structure in cases of military sexual assault to acknowledge that victims need a safer way to report and they need to be assured that prosecutors will take their cases seriously. Under the terms of her proposal, when victims report rapes, outside prosecutors would decide whether the cases should go to court, rather than commanding officers, who might be biased in their assessment of such cases. Yet, Republicans have consistently resisted bills that attempt to push through reforms, and women aren’t afraid to turn on her either.

Opposition to reform on the handling of such cases illustrates that, despite the fact that the issue is a clearly-documented problem for all members of the military, many parties appear reluctant to address it, and believe that the matter should be left to the hands of the military, as has historically been the case with crimes involving servicemembers. This system clearly isn’t working now, and there’s no evidence that it will start to work simply because the Pentagon dreams it so.

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