The scourge of sexual assault in the U.S. military

Sexual assault is a large problem in the United States military, but only recently has its severity been brought to the public’s attention. Twenty to 48 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted, according to the Women’s Bureau, and the numbers are on the rise.

In 2012, soldiers were 15 times more likely to be raped by a comrade than to be killed by an enemy. According to BBC, Pentagon data reported that sexual assault rates increased to 60 percent in 2013 alone, with roughly 5,400 cases reported.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand attempted to pass a bill that would revoke the military’s authority to handle major military crimes, including sexual assault. Her bill received 55 votes on March 6, falling five short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster. Gillibrand criticized President Barack Obama for failing to issue stronger reforms to protect survivors of military sexual assault.

On the same day, Lt. Col. Joseph Morse was suspended for groping a female colleague in 2011. These allegations were brought forward in February, and only on March 6 did Morse get suspended. To make matters more disturbing, Morse is responsible for supervising other U.S. Army prosecutors who handle sexual assault cases.

Also on March 6, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair pleaded guilty to lesser charges as part of a larger sexual assault case. According to BBC, Sinclair “pleaded guilty to improper relationships with two female Army officers, violating orders by possessing pornography in Afghanistan, and conduct unbecoming of an officer.”

BBC also reported that Sinclair is the most senior member of the U.S. Army to ever face sexual assault charges. He could potentially face life in jail if convicted for other charges including sexual assault, threats against the victim’s family and using his superior rank to continue an affair.

In light of these incidents, Gillibrand’s reforms are certainly called for – Obama promised to enact tighter reforms if conditions did not improve by the end of 2014, but how many more victims must we have before action is taken?

According to the U.S. Defense Department, out of an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012, only 3,374 were reported. The low reporting rate is unsurprising – 60 percent of victims stated that they experienced consequences for coming forward and only 302 perpetrators were actually prosecuted. These rates echo those of civilian rape; however, there is a strong argument that this is not a societal problem but a military problem.

The military rape differential reveals this: The military sexual assault rate is lower than the rate of civilian rape, yet it is higher than the same rate of any other military crime. The recruiting process serves to weed out those with criminal records, yet this does not appear to hold true for rates of sexual assault.

Gillibrand’s call to remove this power from military officials is imperative. The bias of military officials is self-evident; 60 percent of victims should not face retaliation for coming forward about sexual assault. If people like Sinclair and Morse are responsible for supervising sexual assault cases, is it fair for survivors to report their sexual assault to a system that is complicit in sexual assault? I believe not.

Beyond sexual assault within the military, we must call attention to rape as a tactic of war. The lack of statistics is in itself telling. For perspective, according to Robert J. Lilly’s Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe During World War II, American GIs raped an estimated 14,000 civilian women in Europe, France, and Germany during World War II. Civilian rape by soldiers is not something that is often discussed, and this ought to change alongside the problem of military sexual assault.