Will President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin finally be the team that takes serious action against sexual assault in the military? Both have signaled willingness to try something new in the fight against a problem that military leaders, members of Congress, and former President Barack Obama have said they wanted to fix, only to back away from significant changes to the current system.
One key reform, pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, that military leaders have fiercely resisted would be to have decisions about prosecuting sexual assault cases made outside the chain of command by experienced military prosecutors. Biden has backed this change—and Austin is reportedly open to it, especially after meeting remotely with military sexual assault survivors and hearing from them.
Only a small fraction of service members sexually assaulted on the job report the assault in an actionable way, and for good reason—many who do experience retaliation. A majority of reported cases are not referred for court martial, and conviction rates are low. So the outcome of reporting sexual assault is vastly more likely to be that the victim faces retaliation rather than that the assailant is convicted.
“Repeated testimony from survivors and former commanders says that the widespread reluctance on the part of survivors to come forward and report is due to the bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command’s sole decision-making power over whether cases move forward to a trial,” a fact sheet from Gillibrand’s office notes. Right now these decisions are being made by military commanders, and, as Gillibrand noted in 2013, “not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape.” Or at least, if they can, they may not want to.
Change is desperately needed, but the military is likely to continue to push to keep the unacceptable status quo, even while claiming to recognize that it’s unacceptable. Enough time has passed to show that smaller changes made under Obama weren’t enough. It’s time to go big, and Austin is going to have get himself right with that, and then bring the generals along with him.
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