New Act Could Fix the Military’s Fatally Flawed Handling of Sexual Assault

One of the most pernicious aspects of rape in the military is the prevailing culture of blaming the victim. Victims are treated as whiners, liars, seducers, and traitors–as everything a soldier should never be. They are mocked, ostracized and even punished for trying to seek justice.

As a result, fewer than 20 percent of military sexual assaults are reported, and only 8 percent of assailants are prosecuted, according to the Department of Defense itself. And those numbers are conservative. This, in a military that sees nearly one in three of its women sexually assaulted while serving.

Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) announced a new Congressional bill that could help to correct this horrific situation. Its thrust is to create a new, autonomous autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office in order to remove the handling of sexual assaults from the chain of command, wherein lies the rot.

The bill is called the STOP Act: The Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act. Here is why it matters:

At the moment, every sexual assault in the military must be reported to the victim’s immediate supervisor, who must then go up the chain of command. This can subject a victim to a nightmare of consequences. Some examples:

  • Most assailants are of higher rank than their victims, which means some victims are forced to report their rapes to the rapist.
  • Victims who report a sexual assault to commanders can never remain truly anonymous, despite a policy to the contrary, because military platoons are closed, gossipy units in which everyone knows everyone else. This opens anyone who reports a sexual assault to possible revenge, threats and punishment.
  • Nothing at the moment can stop commanders from choosing to protect their careers and reputations from scandal by silencing a victim with threats or actual punishment. The military is rife with stories of victims who have been punished for trying to report a rape.

Congresswoman Speier’s bill could address all of these problems if it’s properly implemented. By directing all sexual assault reports to the new special office, it could remove the power of commanders to silence victims.

If the STOP Act is passed, its success will lie in the details—how the new rules are to be actually implemented. According to Speier’s office, these details are yet to be worked out. If a soldier is assaulted while on duty in Afghanistan, to whom will she report now? Will there be a rape hotline on every military base, at home and abroad, that connects to the new office? How will a victim have access to a sexual assault counselor and support if nobody in her unit is supposed to know what has happened? How will a victim be protected from revenge or punishment by the perpetrator or her commander?

These are some the questions our military troops will want answered.

The STOP Act mandates another essential change, too: the ban of non-judicial punishments. Right now, the military has an astounding predilection for punishing sexual predators with slaps on the wrists–demotions, unpleasant jobs, short spells away from their normal work, administrative dismissals. In 2010, 49 percent of convicted assailants were given punishments [PDF] like this. This is actually fewer than in previous years, but it still sends a resounding message that sexual assault isn’t serious and that consequences will happen to nobody but the victim.

The one clause in the bill that worries me is that the new office will have the authority to “reassign” a victim to separate her from the assailant. The military does this already, often, and although on the surface it seems protective, in practice it can feel more like a punishment than a rescue. If a woman reports a rape, for example, and the response is to send her to another unit, it can isolate her from the only friends she has, while the assailant gets to stay put.

Surely the accused is the one who should be removed, at least while he is being investigated. If he is found innocent, he can be restored.

Either way, victims should choose for themselves whether to be reassigned.

The bottom line is that sexual predation in the military is so pervasive that even a bill like this is only a beginning, although an essential one. In the end, its success will come down to the will of the military, from top to bottom, to change its rape culture. So far, the military has shown itself resoundingly unwilling to do any such thing, which is why rapists continue to be protected, and victims continue to be denied justice.

Sign here to urge Congress to fix military sexual assault policy:


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Helen Benedict is a Columbia University professor and author of two books about women soldiers at war: Sand Queen, a novel, and The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Benedict has testified twice to Congress on behalf of women in the military.

Photo of panel on women serving in combat taking place at Camp Liberty, Iraq from Flickr user United States Forces-Iraq under Creative Commons 2.0.




Helen Benedict is a Columbia University professor and author of two books about women soldiers at war: Sand Queen, a novel, and The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Benedict has testified twice to Congress on behalf of women in the military. She has written five previous novels and four other books of nonfiction, many of which concern issues of social justice.