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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

How can we address sexual violence within the U.S. Military?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Since the release of new reports on sexual violence in the military, there have been lots of questions about how to address sexual violence within such a large system. First, note that rape culture exists in every institution, and this problem is not unique to the military. What is unique about this issue is that the military has identified sexual violence as a major issue, dedicated attention and resources to addressing it, and are held increasingly more accountable for making changes by both grassroots advocacy groups and the U.S. government.

The DoD reports on incidence and prevalence of both sexual assault and sexual harassment within active duty branches and military service academies since receiving a directive from the U.S. Congress in 2005. At that time, they established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) to help promote internal accountability and more effective prevention and response activities.  The CDC released a special report on violence experienced by military service members as part of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) data.

In light of these reports, we’ve learned that sexual violence is a common experience and a pressing concern within the U.S. military, just as it is in society in general. Most assaults reported in 2012 occurred at a military installation during work or duty hours (Defense Manpower Data Center [DMDC], 2013). These assaults are commonly committed by coworkers (DMDC, 2013). Deployment may also increase risk of assault for military service women (Black & Merrick, 2013).

Addressing this violence carries some unique considerations. First, service members have dedicated themselves to living, working, and socializing within the same system and community. They have also turned over much of their own autonomy to this system. The strict military hierarchical structure determines the course of a service member’s daily activities. This structure, along with a strong emphasis on unit cohesion, may deter victims from reporting. In addition, the military system develops its own services for many of the community’s basic needs. This includes a military-based justice system.

Many survivors describe being ostracized and blamed by fellow service members for destroying the cohesion of the unit after reporting their abuse, even if disciplinary action against the perpetrator is not taken. (NSVRC, 2013)

Both military and civilian advocates have called into question the ethic of keeping an issue like sexual violence within a self-contained system. Veteran’s advocacy groups, like the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), press for a new justice system that promotes increased offender accountability, access to civil legal remedies, and removing sexual assault prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command. The general public has learned about this issue from films like the Invisible War and reports in news media.

Ultimately, addressing this issue will take a combination of top-down and bottom-up changes. The military system can continue issuing directives for both high level commanders and entry-level service members to learn more about sexual assault and prevention. But actually changing the culture of violence will mean having both formal and informal accountability in confronting sexually harassing and demeaning behavior. The military justice system will need to implement strategies for addressing abusive behavior in a way that avoids victim-blaming. The military system can continue issuing directives for both high level commanders and entry-level service members to learn more about sexual assault and prevention. A good example of the ongoing efforts to address this issue is the establishment of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus in 2012.

As you move forward in advocating for service members affected by sexual violence, consider taking the time to expand your knowledge on the topic. VAWnet offers two special collections of resources on domestic and sexual violence in the military. In addition the NSVRC just released a guide for civilian advocates, talking points, and an infographic on sexual violence in the military. You can learn more about the impact of sexual violence on service members at the DoD Safe Helpline website. Reviewing this information will help to prime you for intense systems-based advocacy.

How have you been successful in your systems advocacy efforts in partnership with military installations in your own community?