Military Sexual Assault Is About Power

The U.S. military has done little to stem sexual harassment and assault of its own female members.

A US female marine and members of USN Hospital Corpsman from the 1st battalion 7th Marines Regiment walk at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson also known as Sabit Khadam in Sangin, Helmand Province on June 7, 2012. The US-led war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of around 3,000 U.S. and allied troops, seen thousands of Afghans killed and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

An Air Force Lieutenant Colonel was charged this week with sexual battery for allegedly assaulting a woman in a parking lot, grabbing the civilian woman by her breasts and buttocks. That, tragically, is not at all an unusual occurrence in a U.S. military that has done little to stem sexual harassment and assault of its own female members.

What makes the case particularly galling is that the man charged, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, had been head of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Is it any wonder that female members of the military feel reluctant to report abuse by their fellow soldiers?

The Pentagon's annual report on the topic this week said that sex-related crimes went up 37 percent from last year, with 3,374 cases of sexual assault in 2012. The report estimated, according to its own survey, that there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year. More cases involved male victims, although the percentage of the female troops allegedly assaulted or abused – 6.1 percent – was much higher than the 1.2 percent of men who reported improper or abusive behavior.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

President Obama, to his credit, delivered an angry response to the report, saying perpetrators would be fired, dishonorably discharged, even court-martialed. And mercifully, Obama did not call it a "sex scandal, as some media organizations have done. The expression – already a bit antiquated in the 21st century – is a phrase one applies to an extramarital affair, not to an assault or molestation of another human being.

How distressing that even as women have erased an important barrier in the military – they can now serve in combat – they still face a threat from the very people who are supposed to have their backs: their fellow soldiers. It's been decades since the "Tailhook" episode, when 100 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and seven men at a Las Vegas event.

Women have made tremendous strides in business and politics and sports. How disappointing that the military still sends the message that it does not welcome female members. And yes, some of the assaults or sexually inappropriate behavior were directed at men. But the message is being shouted so much more forcefully at the female members.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Women Be Allowed to Fight in Combat?]

This isn't about sex, any more than a street rape is about sex. It's about power – whether it's an officer (male or female) trying to intimidate an underling (female or male), or whether it's an environment that is meant to make women feel so outnumbered, so out-testoteroned, even afraid, that they will just give up and get out. Even when the military justice system works for women, it sometimes doesn't: senior officers in charge have summarily thrown out the convictions of sexual attackers, even without hearing the case or reading the evidence.

A victim can undergo the humiliation and trauma of a military trial – something she surely knows will taint her reputation among her fellow soldiers once it is over – and then have the added injustice of having her attacker set free because the officer in charge (as happened recently) decided the accused was a good family man who couldn't possibly have committed the crime he was convicted of doing. Here we have a team of people ostensibly dedicated to protecting the freedoms this country has to offer, and a woman must face the very real possibility of undergoing Taliban-esque treatment, where her word, especially on matters involving sex, is not believed.

The military has its own culture, its own rules and its own justice system. But the man in charge is a civilian – the president. Let's hope this one makes it clear there will be very real and serious consequences.

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