Sexual Assault In The Military: Are The New Regulations Working?

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.


Carol H.
Past Member 7 years ago

I was raped by ex-marine and he thought nothing of it because he thought that was OK by him but I was twelve (12) at the time and he continued doing it until I was twenty-one (21) so I know first hand what they are not teaching military men like don't take things from people that don't belong to you so I can well imagine what it is like working around these men and they taking full advantage of women that work close to them.
No I don't think that they are doing enough to protect the women in the service at all and that is a fact.

Lukntwohvn R.
Mary R8 years ago

Wendy, you make some very good points in such a short post! I must say...there is a different calaber of individual's these days that the Army is accepting into its ranks than either of the other 3 arms of our military. Some of the stories I could tell you would make your hair stand on end simply because they need bodies. IMO, if they are not going to put an immediate plan into action in order to protect our service woman then, their weapons should become their protectors with no questions asked. After all, this IS the way of the Army, "shoot first, ask questions later." Women have every right to do the same job in fighting for our rights and our country as men. This does not mean they give up the right as human beings and literally lay down their bodies for men to do as they please. And as Abdul states, if the respect is not instilled previously, it certainly will not be instilled in a few days. It is the same within society.

Vesna Gajisin
Vesna G8 years ago

If I could, I'd give you a green star, Abdul. That's exactly what I think, and why I'm against war as a concept and as a means for solving issues. Violence only begets more violence. I wish there were no wars, no soldiers, no weapons. But there are, and that's not going to change any time soon, I'm afraid.

But certain things could be done to better the current situation with regard to rape -- if the punishments were stricter, if there was a support network for victims that really worked with them and for them, I believe there would not be so many cases of rape and harassment within armies. This can happen if the governments start regarding this as a serious problem, and if they stop overlooking it or denying there is a problem to begin with. And if they stop justifying the men in the army with things like "he is a good soldier, he fights well, so let's overlook this little thing". Rape is not a little thing. It is a crime, a serious crime, and every government should at least attempt to do something equally serious about it, whether it's outside or inside the army.

AbdulAziz A.
AbdulAziz A8 years ago

There can be no denying that the armies who are sent out to carry out outrages against the defenceless people will continue with their animal instincts even against their own weaker colleagues.

There is no moral fabric of responsibility when these young people are programmed to go out and kill. They are de sensitised to feel any pain and this is just an extension of the programme they go through before being thrown in the deep end.

If respect and dignity does not exist in the community in the first place, it can not be instilled a few days before they are sent out to kill and be killed. When both sexes are pushed together, what else can you expect???

Thousands of miles away from home, families and the loved ones makes people even more likely to commit outrages.

Even the officers are of the same material and may well have gone through the same processes so can not be expected to become Guardian Angles when promoted

Vesna Gajisin
Vesna G8 years ago

I agree with what wendy said. it is an outrage

Teresa Mac Tavish


Jeff J.
Richard N8 years ago

Shaking sad....

Marishka k.
Marishka k8 years ago

agreed wendy

Wendy F.
Wendy F8 years ago

Saying NO to advances has nothing to do with rape! Rape is violence. Rape is assault. Men are not accustomed to feeling threatened in any way so they freak about gays. Women are aware of threats every day in every situation they are in all day long. The army just does not know how to manage this at all. And yes, officers who ignore it should be prosecuted. Frankly I'm constantly amazed at the number of women who even join the army since we have all heard about these problems for years. When I see news footage of young mothers being deployed I can't help but wonder if they too will be raped and come back with stories they can never tell their children about their service in the military.

Eli Is Here
Past Member 8 years ago

Thanks for the post. I found it very informative.