A recent report from Federal News Network (FNN) cast a spotlight on the rampant sexual harassment targeting military women. According to the report, the abuse is wholly pervasive. Nearly every woman in the military has experienced it, and they face it nearly everywhere—in person, online and via text messages.
At the same time, the U.S. military claims it values diversity. And it needs women. Fewer people are choosing to enlist, and the military cannot afford to overlook or turn away half the nation’s population. But, of course, the stories of sexual harassment cause many women to leave the armed services early. Many others never enlist.
There is no question that this harassment is a problem for the military. And it’s a problem for the women forced to endure it. So, what can they do?
Drawing attention to the problem
How common is sexual harassment against military women? To answer this, FNN quoted Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine and the co-founder of a website focused on drawing attention to the problem. She said it was “incredibly common,” estimating that as much as “99.9% of women service members, or people who identify as women, have been sexually harassed online.”
The last official survey by the Department of Defense found that 119,000 service members had suffered harassment—in a single year.
Sexual harassment does not always lead to sexual assault, but a culture that permits harassment may lead people to think they can get away with assault. Accordingly, the Pentagon saw a 3% rise in reported sexual assaults from 2018 to 2019. Still, as almost anyone familiar with sexual assault will tell you, the 7,825 reports were likely only a fraction of the actual number of assaults.
This is partially because, as FNN reported, military women frequently fear retaliation. In fact, a Rand study claimed that 52% of victims who reported their sexual assaults to the military suffered retaliation.
Connected to all these facts, you have the military leadership, many of whom feel disconnected from the idea of sexual harassment. They may not understand how others misuse social media. Or they may just not want to deal with the problem. Despite clear signs that the military’s culture of sexual harassment has long been a problem, the military branches have yet to start tracking incidents. As FNN put it, the agencies capable of tracking nearly every object orbiting the earth have not yet found a way to track a problem affecting more than 100,000 service members every year.
Why there may be cause for hope
The situation is obviously a long way from “good” or even “okay,” but there is hope.
For starters, the FNN report noted that President Biden recently signed an executive order that explicitly targets sexual harassment in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Prior to this executive order, the military treated sexual harassment similarly to other behavioral concerns. Now, there’s a specific legal power to focus against harassment.
However, that still requires the military to use that legal power. This has long been a second problem. FNN noted that the lack of accountability had long thwarted many harassment complaints. Complaints against unknown harassers would go to rot when the military never really investigated them. Now, the military has a special investigations branch to look into claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
No change without action
The change to the UCMJ gives officials new power to fight back against sexual harassment. But this won’t lead to change by itself. Ultimately, change will only come if women and other victims report their sexual harassment and if officials use their new power to punish the perpetrators.
To those facing harassment, this may seem a daunting prospect. They know retaliation is likely, and they may be unsure that their reports will make a difference. But the changes to the UCMJ should offer hope. They can build on that hope by strengthening their cases with solid evidence and arguments. And then they can stand up—not just for themselves, but for military women everywhere.