Data from the Department of Defense suggests
that women in the military are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier
than they are to be killed in combat. In recent years, the US military has strengthened its
position on sexual abuse among service members, and reports that cases are declining. However,
in May 2015, US senator Kirsten Gillibrand accused the Pentagon of underreporting sexual
assaults.So, just how widespread is sexual abuse in the military? Well, the Department of Defense defines “sexual
assault” as “intentional sexual contact characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation,
or abuse of authority, or when the victim does not or cannot consent.” This includes
offenses like rape, forced sodomy, and any unwanted sexual contact. A 2014 report indicated
that nearly half of assaults towards women and a third of assaults towards men were “penetrative
sexual assaults”. However, overall, rates have been dropping.
In 2014, about 19,000 service members were sexually assaulted, compared to 26,000 in
2012. While rates of assault went down, the number of reported cases roughly doubled,
from about 3,000 to 6,000. And only a small percentage of those cases ever went to court. Part of the reason that so few service members
report sexual abuse is that retaliation from other soldiers or commanding officers is common.
The Department of Defense noted that roughly 60% of female victims who reported an assault
faced some type of retribution. 90% of victims were involuntarily discharged after they reported
abuse. These discharges often forgo the mention of sexual assault entirely, and instead list
“personality disorders” as the justification for dismissal. So, why is sexual abuse so prevalent in the
military? Well, it’s organizational structure poses some conflicts of interest. A commanding
officer is expected to maintain a group of unified, trustworthy soldiers. Any reports
of sexual violence within their command reflects badly on them. This increases the chances
of commanding officers attempting to resolve sexual assault quietly, or by ignoring it
altogether. Additionally, the military’s approach to educating service members about
sexual assault has been called “very 1950s”, and outdated. In 2005, the Department of Defense established
the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program to improve the military’s response
and transparency. Annual reports are also required by law to cover the statistics of
military sexual abuse cases. Other methods of fighting the problem include a 24/7 hotline
for service members to call if their commanding officer ignores their report. Many high-ranking officials have been accused
of maintaining a military culture in which rape is underreported and often unpunished.
One expert noted that, “Right now, the burden of proof is stacked against sexual trauma
survivors.” Although rates are lower in the military than in the general population,
they are still way too high to continue sweeping under the rug. Without better education, communication,
and acknowledgment, sexual assault will continue to be a massive problem for the US Military. I recently met a brave young woman who was
sexually assaulted in the military. She was eventually discharged. He got 30 days
restriction and bumped down in rank. To see how she’s overcoming her trauma, be
sure to check out this video from my series Rituals. And thanks as always for watching.
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