Martha McSally's Experience With Sexual Assault in the Military Is Part of a 'Silent Epidemic'

Sexual assault in the military affects about 4.3 percent of female service members, but it often goes unreported.
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Senator Martha McSally (R-Arizona) speaks while Senator Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) listens, during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on prevention and response to sexual assaults in the military, on March 6th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Senator Martha McSally (R-Arizona) speaks while Senator Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) listens, during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on prevention and response to sexual assaults in the military, on March 6th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Before Martha McSally became a member of the United States House of Representatives and then a senator, she defied gender hierarchies as the first female combat pilot in the Air Force. She served for more than two decades, rising to the level of colonel after graduating from what was only the ninth female class in the Air Force Academy. But she also was also subject to a common but brutal aspect of the military system: its failure to prevent the widespread sexual assault of service members.*

On Wednesday, the Republican senator from Arizona testified that she had been raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force. "During my 26 years in uniform, I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation, and adjudication," she said. Then, for the first time, she publicly stated that this included her own.

"Unlike so many brave survivors, I didn't report being sexually assaulted," she said, recounting the incident in her emotional testimony. "Like so many men and women, I didn't trust the system at the time. I blamed myself, I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong, but felt powerless."

McSally's experience is, unfortunately, typical among survivors in the ranks: Although research shows the prevalence of sexual assault in the military has been declining over time, the Department of Defense found that more service members were reporting instances of sexual assault in 2017 than in previous years.

As the second senator (and veteran) to speak out as a survivor of sexual assault this year, McSally is using her platform to bring more attention to this problem, which looms large even after several highly publicized scandals. Here's where this issue stands today.

A 'Silent Epidemic'

Sexual assault in the military affects about 4.3 percent of female service members, but commonly goes unreported: The Department of Defense says it received 6,769 reports of sexual assault in 2017, up 10 percent from 2016. That same year, the department estimated about 14,900 military members experienced a sexual assault—more than 40 per day. (More recent data is not yet available.)

Many victims face barriers to reporting their assault, as part of what McSally called a "silent epidemic" on Wednesday. "Sexual harassment and assault were prevalent, but victims mostly suffered in silence," she said of her time in the Air Force Academy. A Task and Purpose survey of sexual assault victims found that many do not report for fear of career sabotage; others describe a hierarchical culture of sexism and bullying that tolerates this assault, particularly in workplaces where women are underrepresented and kept from leadership.

Several scandals—most recently, investigations into the digital revenge porn in the Marine Corps in 2017—have brought more attention to the issue. Yet McSally and others at the hearing condemned the system for its "inadequate responses."

Assault and the Military Establishment

McSally says that when she did tell other service members about the assault, she was "horrified" at the military's failure to address her case. Her disgust almost forced her to leave the Air Force. "Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again," she said, pausing for several seconds to regain composure, "But I didn't quit."

Why has the military failed to address this issue? While more victims may be reporting these days, fewer cases are going to trial: Of the thousands of reported sexual assault cases in 2017, only 774 (16 percent) entered into the court-martial process.

The Pentagon has blamed this on "victim choice," but the military justice system also encourages commanders to overlook allegations. As Jared Keller has reported for Pacific Standard, these failures are embedded in federal law limiting undue punishments:

By vesting authority in commanders to determine charges, you're putting authority in a figure who possesses a series of overlapping incentives—troop cohesion, their own paperwork load, sexual assault "training fatigue," and perhaps their own ingrown misogyny. Consider that, while reports of sexual assault were up in 2017, the numbers of actual courts martial actually declined. Commanders are increasingly relying on administrative punishment to avoid a long and drawn-out judicial process, and claiming lack of evidence to prosecute. 

What's Being Done?

On Wednesday, senators celebrated the over 100 legislative actions addressing the issue in the last decade. Some of the positive changes include the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which amended the process for investigating and prosecuting sexual assault.

McSally, for one, has called for removal of commanders who fail to address sexual assault. "We are survivors together," she said.

*Update—March 10th, 2019: This post has been updated with an accurate description of Martha McSally's professional positions.

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