An article in today’s New York Times raises, once again, the question of whether the Pentagon’s efforts to curb sexual assault and abuse in the military are working. As women and men serve together in combat roles, sexual abuse and assault are becoming more and more of a reality for women in the military, who often find it difficult to report sexual harassment or abuse. The Pentagon has recently, according to the NYT, “changed the way it handles sexual abuse in particular, expanding access to treatment and toughening rules for prosecution.” This includes a broadened definition of sexual harassment and assault, which now includes crimes beyond rape, like groping or stalking.
It’s hopeful that the military is finally cracking down on the incredibly serious problem of sexual assault in the ranks. In a 2008 op-ed, Representative Jane Harman recalls visiting the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare Center, where she met with female veterans and their doctors. Harman writes, “My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41% of female veterans seen at the clinic say they were victims of sexual assault while in the military, and 29% report being raped during their military service.” The Pentagon has clearly seen these statistics too, and Harman, among others, has been outspoken about the need to reform the military’s policies around sexual assault, which may appear acceptable in theory, but don’t work in practice.
Women who have been assaulted report feeling as though they wouldn’t be taken seriously, that their problems don’t matter, and that predators won’t be held accountable. And by the Pentagon’s own estimate, as few as 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported, despite the fact that, as Harman said in a Congressional hearing this year, “A woman in the military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.”
Another issue that is rarely addressed is the fact that 10 percent of the victims in the last year were men, an issue that the Pentagon’s task force says that the military has completely failed to address in terms of counseling, treatment and prosecution. And in fact, men are even less likely to report attacks because of fears that their sexual orientation would be questioned, as well as general stigma. In most cases, the attacker was male.
The Pentagon has responded somewhat defensively to accusations that their new policies are not working. They say that the rising numbers of reports of sexual assault are, in a way, good, because it means that more people are comfortable enough to report the assault. They have provided more resources, but once again, the theory seems to appear more effective than the practice. These efforts “are often undermined by commanders who are skeptical or even conflicted, suspicious of accusations and fearful that reports of abuse reflect badly on their commands.”
The stories of soldiers (who are mostly women, because the vast majority of victims are women, and because it is harder to get men to speak) are heartwrenching. Many face the consequences alone, working side by side with their abusers. Others find themselves discharged for speaking out – while still more feel that their abuse is inconsequential compared to the importance of what their military operation is doing.
One thing is clear: the Pentagon needs to be doing more, in their education of soldiers and implementation of policies, to make sure that these new efforts are effective in practice and not just in theory. It’s one thing to say that there will not be recriminations, but inevitably the responsibility for preventing sexual assault lies with commanding officers, who need to emphasize the fact that predators will indeed be held accountable, that victims will not be blamed, and that assault is completely unacceptable and counter to the community ethics of the military. And there needs to be a change in the military community itself – so that war does not become a situation where sexual assault is sanctioned or unpunished.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense's website.