The Defense Department Wants to Criminalize Sexual Harassment in the Military (Finally)

Arizona Sen. Martha McSally recounting her experience of rape in the Air Force by superior officer when she was a colonel at a hearing by the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel on military sexual assault March.
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In a memo sent to subordinates Wednesday and released publicly today, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called for sexual harassment to be criminalized in the military and asked that personnel work to end sexual harassment and assault, according to Politico.

“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” Shanahan wrote in the memo, which also cites data from a new annual report showing that sexual assault in the military has gotten worse. He added: “This is unacceptable.”

According to the report shared by USA Today, reports in the military of “unwanted sexual contact” ranging from groping to rape rose by nearly 38 percent between 2016 and 2018. Women ranging from ages 17 to 24 were at “highest risk” for assault, while more than 85 percent of victims knew the assailant. Alcohol was involved in 63 percent of the assaults, though alcohol usage makes assault no more understandable or justifiable.

The Department of Defense will also be targeting the eradication of sexual violence by other means, though officials say they hope the criminal penalties for harassment will be in place by October, according to the Military Times. From the Times:

A day earlier, during testimony on Capitol Hill, Shanahan promised new action to deal with issues of harassment and retaliation against victims of those assaults. Defense officials said they hope to have new criminal penalties in place by this October, including “steps to seek a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment.”

The department also announced plans for new training for commanders and a new program to root our serial sex offenders, as well as “efforts to select recruits of the highest character.” Specifics of all of those initiatives have not yet been identified.

Alas, this move is long overdue, and a bit of a shame that it had to be predicated by an astonishing report on how widespread military sexual harassment has become. Nonetheless, it’s a move in the right direction.

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Samantha Grasso

Splinter Staff Writer, Texan