According to Pentagon figures released on Wednesday, reports of sexual assault in the military have risen sharply over the last year. The Defense department received 3,553 sexual assault complaints from October 2012 through June, a full 50 percent increase over the year before.
According to military officials, the numbers represent a move in the right direction. They're right in the sense that the increased numbers are probably due in part to women feeling more comfortable reporting rapes. But the number of reports just gives more evidence to the argument that the military has a serious sexual assault problem.
The Pentagon figures include complaints of sexual assaults on civilians by military members and by military members on civilians. (Sexual assaults on military members by military members are not included). As The New York Times reports, the number of complaints doesn't come close to matching the number of sexual assaults actually taking place: A separate biannual survey of 1.4 million military members found that "about 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010."
Maj. General Gary S. Patton, the director of the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office, remains optimistic:
"Folks have heard about the services and programs that we have for victims, and they are walking in the door to get those services. This is a strong indicator that people have heard our message and believe we are going to take care of them."
Some members of Congress think more should be done to help victims and generally reform military culture. Three female senators will offer amendments on the defense bill set to come to the Senate floor this month. Sen. Claire McCaskill's has the support of the Pentagon and Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, so it's the one that will probably get the most traction. Her amendment would stop commanders from overturning jury verdicts and mandate that anyone convicted of sexual assault be dishonorably discharged or dismissed.
Sen. Barbara Boxer offered a measure this week to exempt sexual assault victims from testifying at pretrial hearings, which can be intimidating to victims who are scared to come forward with their accusations. Sen. Lindsey Graham is also a lead sponsor on the amendment.
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand thinks the measures doesn't go far enough. She's been pushing an amendment that would take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command by giving military prosecutors, not accusers' commanders, the ability to decide which cases to try. The Pentagon does not want this. At a hearing in June, military officers admitted that there is a "peer pressure" problem within the ranks. "I would honestly tell you there is peer pressure against reporting right now but the tide is changing," Marine Col. Tracy King conceded. But officers insist they are committed to making changes themselves, without Congress' intervention. Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt followed up King's admission: "We have got to create a climate that the peer pressure is you don't commit sexual assault."
Despite the record number of assaults, Anna Palmer and Darren Samuelsohn at Politico helpfully point out that women are still enlisting: "Even as the problem of military sexual assault has gotten more attention, there's been no drop-off in women signing up to serve." Kay Steiger at Talking Points Memo explains the problem with reporting the story this way: "Ultimately framing the story has a subtext that women are the ones who should exercise caution when it comes to sexual assault -- rather than focusing on potential offenders." Women shouldn't be "scared off" of joining the military; the military should do more to curb assaults and prosecute offenders.
Gillibrand, for her part, is not giving up. She made a push for 60 votes in the Senate on Wednesday, later explaining to reporters,
"There is no accountability. Because the trust that any justice will be served has been irreparably broken under the current system, where commanders hold all the cards over whether a case moves forward for prosecution."