I’m sure we all remember the “Me Too” (or “#MeToo“) campaign that spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. It sent ‘shockwaves’ through the US film industry and now it appears that the US military is about to suffer the same fate.
On a cold Monday in January, Nichole Bowen-Crawford, an Army combat veteran, found herself outside the Pentagon recounting the most traumatic experience of her military service: A higher-ranking sergeant sexually assaulted her while they were on tour in Iraq in 2003, she said. When she confided in a supervisor, she was advised to keep quiet.
“Senior male soldiers advised me to not report, saying that my career was more important than this,” Bowen-Crawford told a small crowd of demonstrators who had gathered to demand more transparency from the military on sexual misconduct and to protest the retaliation that survivors face.
Sexual assault and harassment have plagued the U.S. armed forces for decades, but until recently survivors have largely been afraid to speak out. Protections for service members are weighed against other defence concerns and often fall short, critics say.
The military justice system has come under fire for its internal process for adjudicating these cases, and reform efforts have stalled or failed to curb abuse.
“This is an opportunity for military women to ask: Where is our #MeToo reckoning?” said Lydia Watts, head of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nongovernmental organization that helped organize the Jan. 8. protest outside the Pentagon. “When is it our moment where offenders will be held accountable? Is it going to be taken as seriously as it’s being handled in the civilian world?”
Just last year, the Marine Corps was rocked by scandal when investigative reports revealed that photos of naked service women were shared on a closed Facebook group called “Marines United” with tens of thousands of U.S. and British Marines.
After the story sent shockwaves through the ranks, the military undertook a number of reforms, including a bill banning “revenge porn.” But far greater change is needed, advocates say, and service members are now speaking with fresh urgency.
Critics say the problem stems from the military’s overwhelmingly male-dominated culture and its justice system, which relies largely on prosecuting sexual assault through the chain of command.
With one in four assaulted women and one in three men assaulted by someone in their chain of command, it’s believed that allowing commanders to have this responsibility stifles reporting because of fear of retaliation and lack of trust.