The Military’s Sexual Assault Blindspot

Authored by: Eric R. Carpenter

Categories: The Field of Women, Peace and Security
Sub-Categories: National Security Forces and Armed Groups, Security Sector Reform (SSR)
Region: North America
Year: 2015
Citation: Eric R. Carpenter, "The Military's Sexual Assault Blind Spot," Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice 21, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 383-424

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Executive Summary

The American military is in a well-publicized struggle to address its sexual assault problem. After the Tailhook scandal in 1991, military leaders repeatedly and publicly assured Congress that they would change the culture that previously condoned sexual discrimination and turned a blind eye to sexual assault. Over the past two decades, new sexual assault scandals have been followed by familiar assurances and Congress’s patience has finally run out. As a result, the Uniform Code of Military Justice is currently undergoing its most significant restructuring since it went into effect in 1951. The central issue is who is going to run the military justice system: military commanders, or someone else. As it stands, military commanders (also called convening authorities) make the ultimate decision on whether a case goes to trial. Commanders receive the advice of military lawyers throughout the process and routinely follow that advice, but they do not have to. This reform effort is based on the assumption that commanders look at sexual assault cases differently than other cases. Critics say that those who run the military justice system have a bias against the victims in these cases, where that bias is likely related to some form of sexism. Critics claim that when faced with the decision to prosecute these sexual assault cases, commanders face a conflict between their loyalty to someone that otherwise looks like a good soldier and their duty to seek justice for a victim who may have behaved in ways that commanders disapprove of, like liberal sexual behavior or prohibited conduct like underage drinking. This article explores that problem.