Senate takes steps to reduce sexual violence in the military

Two Senate measures may help to reform military culture and reduce rampant sexual assault among service members

Published April 29, 2013 1:03PM (EDT)


According to a survey of active-duty service members released last week, one in five women reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact since they enlisted in the military. Other statistics reveal that there were 3,192 reported cases of military sexual trauma in 2011, but as many as 19,000 incidents likely went unreported.

The sobering prevalence of sexual assault in the armed services and the failures of military leadership to hold responsible parties accountable (only 10 percent of sexual assaults reported in 2011 went to trial) have created a military culture that is increasingly dangerous for female service members.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has offered two Senate proposals to begin the process of reform in American military culture. The first measure, introduced last week, will provide increased access to reproductive health care to female service members. The second, set to be introduced next month, intends to reform the way the military handles sexual assault cases.

Gillbrand's measure to allow female service members to use their own money to pay for abortion care is of particular import to the many survivors of military rape who may not report the crime, but still require care.

As the New York Times reports:

Under current law, military doctors may perform abortions only in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is endangered, an appalling restriction on a woman’s right to make her own childbearing decisions. The rule also has the effect of denying abortion care to military rape victims who are unwilling to risk their careers and privacy by coming forward.

The second measure would bring in independent prosecutors to investigate and bring charges in cases of rape or sexual assault in the military; a measure that would reduce, however slightly, the fear of threats or retribution from commanders that many women face when coming forward to report an assault:

As things stand, senior officers with no legal training but ample conflicts of interest can decide whether court-martial charges can be brought against subordinates and whether to throw out a verdict once it is rendered. In one recent case, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, an Air Force commander, dismissed without explanation the aggravated sexual assault conviction of an Air Force fighter pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, permitting Colonel Wilkerson’s reinstatement.

Ms. Gillibrand would leave decisions in serious military cases, including sexual assaults, to an independent prosecutor and end the power of senior commanders to quash a verdict.


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Female Service Members Military Military Sexual Trauma Rape Sexual Assault