As officers charged with preventing sexual assaults have been charged with sex crimes themselves, the scandal in the US military is mounting. In an editorial, The Virginian-Pilot, citing a new Pentagon report, noted that “an average of 70 sexual assaults involving military personnel occur every day. … as many as 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted last year but fewer than 3,400 reported the incident.”
Reuters reported that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the military is losing the confidence of women members, and the Defense Secretary directed that a plan for training and credentialing those personnel who interact with recruits and sexual assault victims be formulated.
Does the history of the military’s response to sexual assaults give us any reason for optimism?
The 1991 Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal
The Virginian-Pilot reports that a year ago, eight Air Force members, or former members, who were victims of rape or assault sued claiming that they suffered retaliation when they reported it to their superiors. They alleged that the military has a "high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks" and discourages victims from coming forward. Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times columnist, who writes “another day, another military sexual assault scandal,” recalls the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal, where at least 83 military women and seven men were assaulted.
One female pilot testified that "I got attacked by a bunch of men [fellow pilots] that tried to pull my clothes off. I fell down to the floor and tried to get out of the hallway, and they wouldn’t let me out. They were trying to pull my underwear off from between my legs." She pleaded for help from a passing pilot, who joined in the assault.
She reported this assault to her superior, Rear Adm. Jack Snyder, who said, "Well, that’s what you get for going down a hallway of a bunch of drunken aviators." Rear Adm. Duvall Williams Jr. stated that, given the language used by one female victim, "Any woman that would use the F word on a regular basis would welcome this type of activity."
The Navy Secretary resigned, and Rear Adm. Williams took an early retirement.
As Abcarian says, “The Pentagon sternly vowed it had ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual harassment and assault.” Sound familiar?
Is Education and Training Enough? What Is To Be Done?
Reuters reports that despite years of training, role playing, a video game called "Team-Bound," and the "I Am Strong" sexual assault prevention campaign, all designed to educate about sexual harassment, there was a 37% increase in sexual assault cases in 2012. The Virginian-Pilot says that “Anecdotal evidence is substantial, and it spans years, showing that training, tracking and enforcement efforts aren’t working.”
As the Reuters story says, “critics say training may never be enough to do away with the problem.” It quotes former Marine Captain Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, who helped implement sexual assault prevention training way back in 2004: "The military cannot train its way out of this problem.”
Then story says that Captain Bhagwati “urges the military to take prosecution of sexual assault cases away from the chain of command, making it easier for victims to seek justice, an idea echoed in a Senate bill last week.”
Let’s give Robin Abcarian the last word in this post:
“Tailhook represented the sort of lawless, alcohol-fueled behavior that was never supposed to happen again in an age where increasing numbers of women were in the military. Things have changed since Tailhook, that’s for sure. Military sexual assaults no longer occur in raucous hotel corridors. Instead, they’re taking place in more private settings, and in record numbers.
Good work, Pentagon.”