The day after Christmas, President Obama signed a defense bill with provisions to curb sexual assault in the U.S. military. Under the new law, anyone who engages in sexual assault will face dishonorable discharge, commanders are prevented from reversing jury decisions, legal assistance will be provided for victims, and “retaliation” against a victim will be punished.
The bill came in response to a Department of Defense report issued earlier this year, which claimed there were 26,000 victims of assault in the military in 2012. In the previous year, 19,000 assaults were disclosed from 2010. The numbers were not comprehensive, however, omitting additional accounts of sexual harassment, or “unwanted gender-related behavior.” The 26,000 figure also excludes quid-pro-quo intimidation, according to which victims are blackmailed into committing sexual acts in return for job security or career advancement. Repeated assaults are also discounted, as are assaults against civilians.
The issue of sexual assault in the military was first tackled in Congress in March 2013, when Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) led a hearing, hosted by the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel, to investigate the problem. During the hearing, victims shared their tragic accounts, and testimony was heard from high-ranking law experts in the armed forces. Since then, Sen. Gillibrand and other members of Congress have sought to challenge the epidemic.
Although the bill is considered a positive development, many argue the newly instated regulations are not drastic enough. In contrast to Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, which called for independent authorities to oversee and prosecute assault claims, the new bill still grants victims’ commanders the power to hear assault claims and administer punishment — a policy that often leads to inaction or failure to hold perpetrators accountable.