Health & Social Policy

Military Sexual Trauma Among Female Service Members: Prevalence, Procedure, and Possible Solutions

Students from Dr. Jacqueline Angel’s LBJ School seminar “Women and the Changing World of Work,” address obstacles faced by women in the military in this series. To view more of the series, please click the “Women in the Military” tag below. 

Author’s Note: *Trigger Warning* This piece discusses sexual assault.

Congress, military leadership, and the American public are growing increasingly concerned with military sexual trauma. Sexual assault in the military is of particular importance because it disrupts military readiness and troop cohesion and is correlated with long- and short-term mental health services, lost productivity, pain and suffering for victims. According to a 2013 U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report, the military generally, and military justice system specifically, may have institutional features that allow for high rates of sexual assault and also impair the investigation and prosecution of such crimes.

The military defines sexual assault as a broad category of offenses including rape, aggravated or abusive sexual contact, or attempts to commit these acts. The U.S. Department of Defense documents reports annually. In 2012, DOD found 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving service members in 2012. However, after taking into account anonymous reports from a DOD survey, the Department estimates that 26,000 service members have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. Furthermore, though the experiences of civilians who have experienced this crime should not be discounted, it is important to note that the rate at which women are raped or sexually assaulted in the military (estimated at one-in-three) is higher than that in the civilian world (estimated at one-in-five).

Most people who experience sexual assault don’t report the crime — whether they are a civilian or service member. In the military, certain institutional characteristics may contribute to unwillingness to report. Loyalty and self-sacrifice, usually admirable traits among soldiers, can result in an unwillingness to report abuse by fellow service members. If a victim chooses to report sexual assault and a service member is accused, the alleged perpetrator is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Military criminal investigators, commanding officers, and judge advocates (military lawyers) are responsible for investigation and adjudication. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service or the Air Force Office of Special Investigators conducts the investigation and presents the results to the commanding officer of the accused service member. Commanding officers have several judicial and administrative options to choose from, including no action, administrative action, nonjudicial punishment or court-martial. The role of commanding officers in this process has become controversial. While some argue that the military chain of command’s decision making power possesses bias and a conflict of interest on whether cases move forward to a trial, others maintain that officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead.

Members of Congress have proposed several pieces of legislation aimed at curbing military sexual assault and protecting victims who choose to report. Two have gained traction: the Victims Protection Act of 2014 by Sen. Claire McCaskill, and the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013 by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Sen. McCaskill’s bill would allow sexual assault victims to weigh in on whether their cases should be prosecuted in a civilian or military court, create a confidential process to challenge any discharge or separation as a result of their cases, eliminate certain unrelated affirmative defenses (such as the accused’s service record), and require that a commander’s record on the handling of sexual assault cases be taken into account. This bill passed the Senate on March 10 and is now being heard in the House. Sen. Gillibrand’s bill would remove military commanders from decisions over the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the armed forces altogether. This bill fell 5 votes short in the Senate, but Sen. Gillibrand says she will continue to work towards its passage.

The American public awaits a change in hopes that military sexual trauma will be reduced, and female service members can continue to serve our country without such high prevalence of rape and sexual assault.

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