Weak Progress on Ending Military Sexual Assault

January 15, 2013

“When we can’t protect those who protect our rights, something is wrong,” said Martin R. Castro, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, as he opened a hearing on military sexual assault last week.

Invisible War

As government reports document and as the AAUW-supported, Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War demonstrates, sexual assault is a rampant problem in our military. Only 8 percent of reported military sexual assaults are prosecuted, and only 2 percent of those end in convictions. Overall, reporting is very low.

Last week’s hearing was part of the commission’s fact-finding process before they make recommendations to the president and Congress about how best to protect the civil rights of military members and stop sexual assault. Throughout the daylong hearing, which I attended as an AAUW representative, commission members listened to the testimony of legal experts and people who work with survivors, and military leaders spoke about their initiatives. AAUW also submitted our own statement to the commission.

A common recommendation among nonmilitary witnesses was to change how rapes are reported and prosecuted. Right now, reports must be made through a soldier’s chain of command, even though their chain of command may include the alleged rapist or one of his friends. When reports are made, people in power have the discretion to change rape charges to lesser charges like adultery, allowing the offender to remain on active duty.

A few people at the briefing suggested that rape cases should be tried in civilian rather than military court, a procedure militaries in several other countries successfully use. The Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which AAUW supports, calls for this kind of independent review process.

During the panel, leaders from various military branches highlighted their new prevention initiatives. For example, the Navy recently hired 66 new victim advocates, trained 150 attorneys, and gave 30,000 sailors “bystander” training to prevent assault. The Army created new “special victim capabilities” and requires soldiers to learn intervention tactics, in addition to “constant” training and education for commandants, investigators, and judges.

When members of the commission asked the military leaders if they would be open to changing the reporting process and removing the discretion that the chain of command has over rape reports, the military leaders said no. They felt it was important for commanders to retain control over the reporting and discipline process.

While I am glad the military is tackling prevention efforts in a more comprehensive way, I wonder how much will change if survivors still face barriers to reporting, if alleged rapists likely face little punishment, and if commanders have so much power?

In the 22 years since the Tailhook scandal, we have witnessed a cycle: scandals of sexual violence within the military, the revelation of abuse of power, and then congressional hearings during which the military promises to do better. Rinse and repeat.

I want to hope that this time will be different, in part because there is more public awareness thanks to The Invisible War and the high-profile lawsuits that the Legal Advocacy Fund supports. After hearing the military’s response on Friday, however, my hope is waning.

On January 23, Congress will hold a hearing on the sexual misconduct at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Stay tuned for my report.

Holly Kearl By:   |   January 15, 2013


  1. Avatar Exa says:

    I am a survivor and THE MILITARY does not need to handle these case, they need to be handled by the civilan courts. The Branches of The Military hasnt ever been able to handle these situations.. The Guy who assaulted me was convicted and dishonorable discharged, but because his WIFE was a soldier, he was still apart of the military community and could still harrass me through other means, also his sentence was so light (30days in jail) he was not put on a sex offenders data base, and contacted me via internet on a social site in 2009. Under an Alias name.

  2. Avatar Angel says:

    I am taking a different route. Military will not answer for what they have done; I have found though in making calls that just like when we ran out of options that the United States has to answer for what they are doing to us. The United Nations can step in. You can file a complaint over your human rights as a female. With many other things; I talked with them today. If you were raped during war time, FEDS can investigate your case. Despite what NCIS, CIDC, and whoever else they have no jurisdication over WAR CRIMES which is what this falls under if you are deployed. Its a War crime- Rape, Sexual Assault. If FEDS won’t take it, then you have exhausted here in the United States and the UN will hear your case. They can’t make the military change, but they do other other things Federal Government to make them change. So, think about it, you can go to their site and submit the complaint via email, fax or mail it. The United States has to to be responsible for their personal going into other countries and raping females, killing us, maming us. They are not above reproach….

  3. Avatar justiceday says:

    What they don’t talk about is the number of us that are raped by this same military that are just civilians. The wives, girlfriends, women they run across and even children.
    What needs to happen is not only that these case be reopened, and in some cases looked at for the first time, but women need to be warned of their chances of being assaulted in the military.

    Right now this is all media hype because of the movie and all the news stations picking up on this, but the problem has been around for decades and in 2005 hit a media spike like it is now. And guess what the problem got worse not better.

    About ever five years they acknowledge the problem, make a big deal, promise to fix things, the media turns around and pats themselves on the back and then forgets to follow up.

    When justice served on the case in this site I will believe something will be done. There is overwhelming evidence and state politicians that can’t even get the government to look at evidence.

    Right now all of this is just a show. When we see the first men held accountable for years of allowing rapes and assaults we can have some hope!

    Sign This!

  4. Avatar Emily Resnik says:

    I, too, am not convinced that true changes are on the horizon. There is a great push from the outside, but I don’t feel like people’s voices are being heard and candid conversations about what might be most effective with experts in the field are nearly unimaginable.

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