Ending military sexual assault starts long before service members don uniform

Protesters for slain Spc. Vanessa Guillén in Los Angeles on  July 12, 2020.
Protesters for slain Spc. Vanessa Guillén in Los Angeles on July 12, 2020.

Combatting sexual violence in the military is becoming more paramount as time passes. Between 2018 and 2019, restricted reports of sexual assault (those that weren't investigated per the victims' wishes) went up by 17%, and formal reports by 10%, according to Pentagon data released last year.

In addition, military sexual assault harms female recruitment and retention. The Department of Defense’s apparent inability to curb sexual violence threatens the most vulnerable – and, as more roles have opened to women, perhaps the most needed – military employees.

In April, the Army released the full investigation into the April 2020 disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén. The story of her harassment and killing went viral last year, prompting protests over the way the military addresses issues of sexual assault and violence against women.

Accordingly, the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act was proposed last year. It allows for complaints about assault to be charged outside of the chain of command.

Just last week, Senate and House leaders combined last year's efforts with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act to get around roadblocks to reform. The new hybrid bill, the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, is in the House and is an end run around Senate shenanigans.

After years of being ignored, the idea of revamping military prosecution received support from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, who finally acknowledged that the ways the Department of Defense has been handling sexual assault cases haven’t been working.

While the new hybrid bill is a sea change in how we tackle military justice, its potential to reduce sexual violence is limited. It won't stop sexual violence in the military because it only enhances accountability among adults and takes power away from generals acting as “convening authorities.”

To prevent military sexual assault and harassment, we have to start earlier.

I served in the Marine Corps for six years. While my primary job was being a logistics officer, I also served as a sexual assault uniformed victim advocate. I educated Marines of all ranks on sexual consent, examples of assault and harassment, how victims could respond to assault and victim blaming.

It’s well known that education is the path to prevention. Fiscal year 2018 and 2019 sexual assault reports by the Pentagon acknowledged that education and awareness are the best weapons against sexual misconduct. One report included input from nearly 500 personnel who desired more education on “healthy relationships and consent.”

But by the time troops enlist, it’s already too late. Teaching at later ages requires unlearning on the pupils' part. By the time they’re adults, people have had more experience with intimate relationships where boundary violations may have been normalized. Adults might also see more “gray areas,” meaning they might have become accustomed to certain interpersonal encroachments being acceptable when they’re not. Consent is a black-and-white issue.

As of June 1, only 18 states required K-12 sexual health education to even be “medically accurate.” Only nine states require that ideas centering around consent be worked into the lesson, and 28 states require curricula to stress the importance of abstinence.

People ages 18 to 24 are already at a higher risk of being victimized, so it makes sense that colleges and the military would face real problems with sexual violence. People are most at risk once they’ve left high school and are starting their adult lives. Though it’s worth noting that 1 in 3 female victims and 1 in 4 male victims were sexually assaulted between 11 and 17 years of age – and perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be children, too.

Congress can’t mandate better sexual health education throughout all states, but they can use federal funding to motivate changes. And, critically, not enough states have meaningful curriculum on healthy romantic relationships – communication, conflict resolution and personal boundaries – perhaps because there’s little inducement.

Waiting to teach these lessons to adults, even younger ones, misses a crucial opportunity. Children are actually better at absorbing these instructions. They lack biases. A study published in 2018 on college sexual assault shows that comprehensive high school sex education with consent and healthy relationships verbiage can be a good strategy for preventing college sexual assault.

But Congress knows this connection exists. In 2015, Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced the Teach Safe Relationships Act, after Kaine met with college students who pushed for teaching consent and healthy relationships before college. What could have been a great prevention strategy was never passed.

Passing that bill for a program with concrete guidance centered around consent and healthy romantic relationships could have resulted in students getting critical information over the past six years.

Guillén’s suspected killer, who was 20 when he allegedly beat her to death and later killed himself, would have been in high school in 2015 and possibly benefitted from those lessons. He was also accused of harassment.

If the solution to military sexual violence was training adults exclusively, then the money the Defense Department already spends on annual sexual assault and harassment training might have produced better results. From 2008 to 2018, the military spent almost $200 million on sexual assault violence education. And a DOD report on military sexual assault shows an increase in annual reporting, to more than 6,000 incidents in fiscal year 2019. That doesn’t include the unknown number of incidents that go unreported, often because victims feel they won’t be believed or supported, that they’ll face retribution, or that they’ll be blamed.

This doesn’t mean the Department of Defense should abandon this training. The level of misconduct by troops shows that we need these modules.

But they’re not enough. The additional help the Department of Defense needs must come from the elementary and secondary school systems – Congress can and should help with that. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed last fall that Congress won’t stop until “we have finally, fully ended this epidemic – in the military, in the workplace and in all places.”

But until that K-12 education happens everywhere more troops will be harmed – getting us no closer to making military bases safer spaces.

Kelsey Baker is a former Marine officer and military sexual assault victims advocate. She is now a freelance journalist.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Laws alone won't end military sexual assault. Teach consent in K-12.