According to reports by the Department of Defense (DoD)‘s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), sexual assault and rape are extremely prevalent for service women and men. According to surveys, almost 1/3 of women in the service will experience rape or sexual assault and almost 90% of women experience sexual harassment. Statistics about men are harder to come by, but the Veteran’s Affairs surveys have found that almost 60,000 men have experienced rape or sexual assault during their time in the military. It is harrowing to think that while these women and men are putting their lives on the line for their country that they also have to worry about being assaulted by their fellow service members; the very same service members who are supposed to have their back in case a situation gets hot.
Despite the high stats of how many women and men are affected, the reporting statistics are much much smaller. According to statistics, there were approximately 19,000 incidents in 2010. However, only 3,158 were reported and of those only 529 were prosecuted. That means that approximately 16,000 survivors of sexual assault are not receiving the assistance that they need and deserve. These statistics need to change.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced a new bill to Congress on November 16, 2011 titled the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Protection Act (STOP Act for short) in order to present a better model to address the many reports of sexual assault in the military that do not reach prosecution and the many more incidents of military sexual assault which are not reported at all. (Bill here: http://www.speier.house.gov/images/stopactsummary.pdf). According to the bill, the following changes would be made:
- The creation of an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office that is staffed by both military and civilian personnel.
- The creation of a sexual assault database within DoD that is required to share information with Department of Justice (DoJ) civilian sexual offender database
- Ensure all victims are provided safety and security
- Have authority to reassign a victim to separate them from assailant
- Create new method of reporting rather than having the report go through the Chain of Command (CoC)
- Work with Military investigative organizations
- Work with different branches of the military to provide contact info for Sexual Assault Grievance Board
There are a couple of problems with the STOP Act that will hopefully be sorted out before it passes into law. First off, an established protocol and procedure needs to be made for those serving in remote and isolated locations, such as Afghanistan. These individuals and locations typically do not have a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) or Victim Advocate readily available. Therefore, it is fair to assume that it would also be difficult for them to be able to easily access the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office. It is imperative that these service members have the same access to services that their comrades do. Secondly, the Act gives the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office the power to reassign the victim in order to separate them from the assailant. This can be very detrimental for the survivor as all of her/his friends may be in the original unit and it is very important for a survivor to have a support network in order to start the recovery path. I would hope that this decision would be made in conjunction with what the survivor wants or the language could change so that it is the assailant who is removed.
However, if properly implemented, the STOP Act has the potential to remove many barriers to reporting a sexual assault and can be a great step towards providing better and much needed services for military members. It would create an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office that is staffed by both military and civilian personnel. Military personnel would be able to provide their expertise on the many barriers that exist for service members to report and the proper language to use with which service members would identify. Civilian personnel would be able to ensure that the military CoC is not overpowering service members who want to make a report. It would be a sort of checks and balances in addition to a combination of a variety of different knowledge bases and points of views.
It would also create the possibility for people to report outside of their CoC. According to SAPRO, the majority of survivors (71%) are under 24 years old and are in the lower ranks; whereas the majority of assailants (59.5%) are between 20 and 34 and a higher rank than the survivor. Oftentimes they work in the same unit and therefore the survivor may feel that if a report is made through the CoC it could get back to the assailant. Additionally, survivors may be scared that their actions, such as underage drinking or fraternization, may be cause for punishment. The threat or fear of being reprimanded is enough to silence many survivors or have them recant their stories. The creation of an independent office would remove the necessity of informing the CoC and could assist in removing these barriers to reporting.
Military groups are extremely small communities and it is impossible to guarantee that confidential information will only stay with those who have a ‘need-to-know’. Either through rumors started by fellow service members or the assailant or because of a change in behavior in the survivor, a confidential report can quickly become common knowledge within a command. Therefore, handling these cases within a separate office could be an added layer of protection against fellow service members from learning and gossiping about the assault or survivor.
The STOP Act would prohibit non-judicial punishments (NJP) from being used for those who are charged with sexual assault. Much like in civilian court, military members are able to plead guilty to lesser charges and therefore receive an NJP (such as demotion, a dock in pay, covering night shifts, etc) rather than have to be processed through a Court Martial and be charged with a sexual offense. It may appeal to offenders more to have a lesser offense on record then chance a Court Martial and being convicted as a sex offender. Hopefully the STOP Act would enable more cases to be processed through as what they are - sexual assault and rape - rather than plead down to lesser crimes.
Continue to follow this bill as it goes through the House and Senate (H.R. 3435). Our service members deserve to have the proper options and resources after a sexual assault.