Gender equality in the military is an illusion and is undermined by the current epidemic of sexual assault and rape against female military personnel.

Lieutenant Elle Helmer at the Vietnam War Memorial, US Marine Corps, from THE INVISIBLE WAR, a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release.

Lieutenant Elle Helmer at the Vietnam War Memorial, US Marine Corps, from THE INVISIBLE WAR, a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release.

Women have gained significant standing within the United States military during the last thirty-five years. However, gender equality in the military is an illusion and is undermined by the current epidemic of sexual assault and rape against female military personnel.

Women have been participating in American wars and conflicts since the American Revolution but have had little success in receiving the same status and protection as men in the military. Presently women are unable to protect their physical beings and integrity from a male dominated military where sexual assault is a common occupational hazard. The ability for women in the United States military to report an instance of sexual assault and rape or have attackers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law has continued to evade the modern military woman, causing detrimental effects to the victims and society.

One of the first accounts of female participation in the United States military was Mary Hays, who is famously known as Molly Pitcher. At the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, Mary Hays was delivering water to the Continental troops when her husband passed out from heat exhaustion. She instinctively took over her husband’s position of loading the cannon and continued to do so for the remainder of the battle. Mary Hays was later praised by George Washington and was given a pension of $40 for her efforts at the Battle of Monmouth. Yet female participation in the United States military did not occur, have support or was appreciated until World War I and World War II when nursing corps and domestic aviation programs were available to women. It was not until 1979 that women were able to enlist into the military and not until 2013 were women permitted to participate in combat.

The largest problem women are currently facing in the armed forces in rape and sexual assault. Women are unable to report instance of rape and sexual assault because of the harsh and brutal repercussion that they could possibly face. The greatest problem that has caused this military ‘rape culture’ is that there is no outside source or governing body to report these horrific instances. All instances of rape and sexual assault are reported to the victim’s commanding officer. These individuals usually do not have specialized training to determine if a sexual assault or rape has occurred or if there is a legal case against an individual for rape or sexual assault. Even more troubling is that these commanding officers have notoriously administered retaliatory punishments on victims who report sexual assault and rape. However what is most concerning about this protocol is that in some instances the attacker is the victim’s commanding officer and the victim is left without any assistance.

Sexual assault and rape in the United States military is currently under strict scrutiny and is being heavily debated in Congress. The female members of the Senate, lead by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo), are aggressively pursuing the issues of military rape and sexual assault and have had an initial victory. On December 26th, 2013, President Obama signed into law “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014,” which included provisions regarding rape and sexual assault in the military. This law strips military commanders of being able to overturn jury convictions, provides victims with legal counsel and limits intrusive questioning of victims. Most importantly the new law requires a civilian review of a reported sexual assault or rape if a commander declines to prosecute a reported instance and eradicates the statute of limitations for court-martials in sexual assault and rape cases.

These new restrictions have been established due to the Pentagon’s estimation of 26,000 members of the military being sexual assaulted last year, which is a grave contrast to the only 3,000 cases reported and 300 cases being prosecuted. The Pentagon’s estimation is much higher since many military personnel do not report sexual assault or rape in fear of nonintervention or retribution. Although this new legislation has placed new restrictions on military commanders and the military’s legal systems, a major provision in Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s sexual assault and rape initiative was not in the current Defense Bill. Gillibrand’s amendment would allow victims in the military to report instances and prosecute attackers of rape and sexual assault through a nonmilitary route.

Furthermore, President Obama is also taking a small initiative to protect military personnel when he “directed [Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders to] report back to [him], with a full-scale review of their progress, by Dec. 1, 2014.” However, Senator Gillibrand is not satisfied with the President Obama’s lack of urgency. Senator Gillibrand “…[does] not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for in removing commanders with no legal training and conflicts of interest from the decision of whether or not to prosecute a rape or sexual assault.” As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Obama should be doing everything in his power to end the violence and trauma that military personnel are facing everyday under his supervision.

Military personnel are not being protected by their government or their employer. They face numerous instances of sexual assault and rape without a guarantee that a victim’s report will be investigated or prosecuted. The United States Military is the only employer in the America that permits a boss to determine if an employee was sexual assaulted or raped. The United States Military has to be held accountable to the same standards as the rest of the American population and workforce. The United States government can no longer deny the problem of sexual assault and rape that is occurring under its supervision. The military and government of the United States needs to enact military policies that will protect the victims and discourage future sexual assault and rape.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Amy Spekhardt

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