A new report says that military service members who report sexual assault face a very high risk of retaliation, including threats, harassment, and loss of promotions and work opportunities. The report says military sexual assault survivors are twelve times more likely to be retaliated against than their attackers are likely to be convicted of a sexual offense, and accuses the Department of Defense of virtually ignoring the problem.
The report, which you can read in full here, was produced by Human Rights Watch and Protect Our Defenders, an organization that advocates for military sexual assault survivors. They spoke to more than 150 service members who have been sexually assaulted. The service members report being spat on, called names, threatened with demotion, and, even threatened with death by “friendly fire” if they’re deployed to a war zone. The stats are incredibly grim: more than half of the service members polled said they’d been retaliated against, while “virtually no one” was held responsible:
Military surveys indicate that most respondents—62 percent—who experienced unwanted sexual contact and reported it to a military authority faced retaliation as a result of reporting. In other words, military service members who reported sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation for doing so than to see their offender, if also a service member, convicted for a sex offense. Just 5 percent (175 out of 3,261) of sexual assault cases in the Defense Department’s jurisdiction investigated with a reportable outcome in FY 2014 led to a sex offense conviction.
The harassment is not subtle. One woman reported being called a “cum dumpster” who “lies about rape” on social media. From the report:
Service members described being threatened, harassed, and abused: one survivor sought safety in a hospital because colleagues told her she “better sleep light,” and disabled her car after she reported her assailant. Another was besieged with phone calls after members of her unit put notes on cars at the post exchange (the on-base store) saying “for a good time call” and her number. Another wrote that within six months of his report he had been “physically attacked twice and verbally belittled” by peers and non-commissioned officers.
Survivors can also quickly see their professional advancement blocked:
A high-achieving sergeant in the Air National Guard told Human Rights Watch that she was up for promotion when she reported a sexual assault that had occurred earlier in her career. Afterwards, a colleague told her a wing commander said, “Over my dead body will she get promoted now.” She lost her responsibility for training people and was demoted twice.
“Despite all those awards, I got nothing,” she said.
Many assault victims also feared reporting because they worried they’d be punished by their superiors for ““collateral misconduct,” like underage drinking or “adultery.” Even minor punishments could hurt their careers, HRW points out.
And their other alternatives aren’t good either: suing the military isn’t easy, and seeking a protective order or requesting a transfer to another duty station, HRW writes, “do not involve holding those responsible for the retaliation accountable.” They also found that while a transfer can represent a “fresh start” for some survivors, “others saw it as punitive or found that harassment and a reputation as a “troublemaker” followed them to other duty stations.”
Technically, a sexual assault survivor who believes he or she has been retaliated against can make a complaint to the Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) or to their service Inspector General (IG), a provision of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. But the report found that the few complaints that were made to the DODIG were found to be “unsubstantiated,” something HRW suggests might be due to to a very high burden of proof and what they politely called “inadequate investigations.”
And even if an investigation were to find that a survivors was unjustly punished professionally, their military record would have to be corrected by yet another entity, the Boards for Correction of Military Records.
In practice, the report found “record corrections almost never happen for sexual assault victims or for military whistleblowers generally. Of all military whistleblower complaints, less than 1 percent receive some form of relief from the records boards. Human Rights Watch analyzed records board decisions over an 18-year period and found just 66 cases in which sexual assault victims won full or partial correction of an injustice in their record.” Alleged sexual assault perpetrators, on the other hand, are frequently able to “adjust” their military records.
Human Rights Watch is calling on Congress to reform the Whistleblower Protection Act to better protect sexual assault survivors, and calling on the military not to do things like punish survivors for minor misconduct when they report sexual assault. They’re also asking that retaliation actually be punished, which doesn’t really seem like a lot to ask.
The Department of Defense released a report earlier this month that also found that retaliation rates remain very high. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said they’re trying to address it, calling the military “a learning organization.”
“We strive to understand and correct our flaws,” Carter told the press. He added, that the “makes it crystal clear that we have to do more.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pictured on May 1, 2015. Image via AP