The XX Factor

Women Sue the Pentagon Over Military Sexual Abuse

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand with a sexual assault victim at D.C. press conference in 2013.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

For years, momentum had been building on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Sara Corbett’s 2007 exposé in the New York Times helped shine a light on how widespread and serious the problem is, as did the 2012 documentary The Invisible War. A dramatic increase in the number of reported sexual assaults drew yet more attention, as did a high-profile case against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair in 2014.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand pushed for legislation to reform the military’s response to sexual assault, but the Senate repeatedly shot down her efforts. One of the biggest points of contention was Gillibrand’s wish to remove sexual assault reporting from the chain of command. Right now, a victim has to report to her commanding officer, even though he may know or even be the assailant, and her commanding officer decides what to do about it. Gillibrand wanted victims to be able to report instead to an independent third party, likely military lawyers, arguing that they are more likely to be impartial. That particular bill died in the Senate last March. Since then, much of the momentum on this issue appears to have receded. 

But now there’s a group of service members trying to do through the courts what Gillibrand couldn’t do in the Senate. “Four active-duty and former service women filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court to stop the Defense Department from putting commanders in charge of cases involving sexual assault in their units,” Patricia Kime of the Military Times reports. Instead, they are demanding that the military handle their cases the way Gillibrand wanted them handled: by independent military lawyers who are not in their chain of command. 

Mother Jones reports on the details offered by one of the plaintiffs, Jennifer Smith, who alleges that she was a sexualized punching bag for her fellow airmen while doing a tour of duty in Iraq. 

Over the course of her five tours abroad, Smith recounted being verbally harassed about a confidential medical condition, retaliated against when she complained, and forced by airmen to look at pornographic imagery. When a superior officer exposed himself to her while she was serving in Germany and attempted to assault her, Smith’s superiors told her, the complaint reads, to “try to avoid being alone with the Master Sergeant, who outranked her,” adding that she later learned he was a repeat offender who had never been reprimanded. In Iraq, she says she was thrown against a wall and sexually assaulted outside a base gym, and took to propping a mop against her door (which had no functioning lock) in case someone tried to break in.

Smith says she reported the harassment and assault and “waited for months and never heard back from anyone.” 

Her account points to why it’s such a problem to have sexual abuse allegations handled by the chain of command. As Smith’s story suggests, a lot of the abuse happens in a “boy’s club” culture; it’s hard to imagine that commanding officers aren’t going to be involved in creating that hostile environment. In addition, most commanding officers aren’t lawyers and don’t understand as well as legal experts do what crosses the line when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse. 

Will this lawsuit accomplish what Gillibrand tried to achieve through the legislature? It’s hard to say now, but it’s good to see that these women are pushing forward on an issue in great danger of fizzling out due to legislative inaction and media inattention.