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Congressional task force aims to curb rise in military sexual assaults

Navy victim advocates attend a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response summit with joint service SAPR and Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention leaders in San Antonio, Texas, in 2017.

JACQUELYN D. CHILDS/U.S. NAVY

By SABRINA EATON | Advance Ohio Media | Published: July 13, 2019

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — A bipartisan task force on sexual violence to curb a rising rate of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces.

On Thursday, the panel conducted a hearing prompted by a Defense Department report released in May that found a 38 percent jump in military sexual assaults over the past two years. The report revealed that in 2018, 20,500 service members said they’d been sexually assaulted: 13,000 women, 7,500 men. In 2016, the total number was 14,900.

The report said that 6.2% of servicewomen of all ranks reported being sexually assaulted in 2018 and .7% of servicemen. Assaults against men held steady over the two year period but grew for women, with those between ages 17 and 24 most at risk. The report said alcohol was a factor in roughly half of the assaults, with most of the perpetrators being the same rank or of slightly higher rank than the victims, and roughly the same age.

Rep. Dave Joyce called the rise “startling” and said that men and women in uniform must be part of efforts to support sex crime victims, bring perpetrators to justice, and “raise awareness about how sexual violence impacts our society so we can bring an end to it.”

Nate Galbreath, the acting head of the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention and response office, told Joyce’s panel the recent findings reversed a 10-year declining trend of military sexual assaults. The 2016 sexual assault rates were down by one third for women and two thirds for men over 2006 rates, he said, and reporting rates had quadrupled over 2006 statistics.

He said the five branches of the military had focused on building awareness that sexual assault is preventable, but “awareness programming doesn’t always translate into the desired long term behavior changes that we need to see in order to make progress.”

Glenna Tinney, a 24-year Navy veteran who co-chairs the Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Subcommittee of the National Task Force Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, told the task force that many military assault victims are hesitant to report incidents because they’ve been drinking, and the military has a pattern of punishing the victims for that behavior, and harassing those who report assaults while not holding perpetrators accountable. She said many of the accused are prosecuted for lesser offenses instead of sexual assault crimes.

“This has a huge effect on prevention,” said Tinney. “If people can offend and not be held accountable, then why won’t they? The message is not consistent.”

Other witnesses at the hearing suggested changing military and workplace cultures that support harassment and assault, ending gender discrimination and increasing mutual respect in the military. They advocated “more nuanced” training about sexual harassment that would better demonstrate to young service members the difference between an assault and a drunken hookup, and to help bystanders recognize and intervene when someone is forcing lots of drinks on another person to make them sexually vulnerable.

“Alcohol won’t go away,” said psychologist Dorothy Edwards, who heads a Virginia organization called Alteristic that aims to reduce power-based personal violence. “This is about mobilizing their peers.”

Joyce says the task force is trying to foster conversation to see whether legislation might be needed to address the problem. He said assault victims should not feel constrained by fears of discipline for drinking when “we are here to prosecute people who have committed sexual assault and sexual violence.”

“It’s astounding to me that the amount of assaults increased from 2016 to 2018, yet the reporting of assault has gone down,” said Joyce. “I have to think it’s from the lack of confidence in the victims that they will see justice be done, that they will be treated fairly, and that they will have their case heard appropriately and have judgment rendered against someone."

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