On Thursday the Senate approved a bipartisan bill that seeks to address retaliation against service members who report sexual assault. The Military Retaliation Prevention Act was passed by the House last week as part of the defense spending bill for 2017 and now heads to the President’s desk for signature.
The bill will classify retaliation as a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and includes provisions that require a survivor be notified of how their retaliation complaint was resolved, establishes metrics for measuring the outcomes of a retaliation investigation, and specifies the training that is required for those investigating retaliation complaints.
The Department of Defense’s (DOD) most recent annual report on sexual assault in the military found that 62 percent of female service members who report unwanted sexual contact experience some form of social or professional retaliation. These women were 12 times more likely to be retaliated against than see their offender convicted.
A Human Rights Watch report conducted in 2015 interviewed more than 150 survivors of military sexual assault. Many of the people they spoke to said the retaliation they experienced after reporting, including bullying, isolation and stigmatized careers, was worse than the assault itself. This is a common sentiment shared among many civilian survivors as well, and is a reason national reporting rates are only around an estimated 30 percent.
In recent years there have been a number of substantial reforms to the military’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Commanders can no longer overturn a sexual assault conviction; civilian review is required if a commander declines to prosecute an accused; dishonorable discharge is a minimum sentence for those found guilty; and each victim is appointed their own lawyer to advocate for their best interest.
But survivor advocates say even more needs to be done, pointing to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act, which would shift prosecution of sexual assault from military superiors to independent military prosecutors.
In fiscal year 2014, the DOD estimates that 18,900 service members were sexually assaulted. Only 3,261 people reported their attack, and, of those, only 175 cases led to sex offense convictions.