Service members sue Pentagon for ignoring military rapes

Yesterday, more than a dozen current and former service members filed a lawsuit claiming the Pentagon has turned a blind eye  to the rampant—and growing—problem of sexual assault in the military. MSNBC reports:

“The lawsuit, being filed by civil litigator Susan Burke, is an attempt to shine the spotlight on what Pentagon officials have acknowledged is a serious problem — a steady increase in reports of sexual abuse within the U.S. military. Last year, the Pentagon reported there had been 3,230 complaints of sexual abuse by members of the military services during fiscal year 2009, an 11 percent increase over the year before.

But Pentagon officials acknowledge that most cases go unreported — and of those that do, department figures indicate less than one in four ever get criminally prosecuted.

The lawsuit alleges that the Pentagon has failed to crack down on the sexist culture of the military services or implemented policies that would insure aggressive investigations of those accused and bar retaliation against service members who file complaints.”

The director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Kaye Whitley, insists that the Pentagon has been making progress. But she notes, “We’re talking about changing the way people think and the way people feel…the research tells us it takes eight to ten years to change the culture.”

Yes, it’s hard to transform  this kind of deeply entrenched culture overnight. (And God knows I don’t envy Whitley’s job.) But as awful as these stories of assault at the hands of fellow soldiers are, the really horrifying part is the lack of response—by their superiors and by the institution as a whole. All the plaintiffs who came forward said that “their military commanders never took their complaints as seriously as they should have.”

One of the plaintiffs is Feministing reader Rebekah Havrilla, who wrote about her decision to participate in the lawsuit on the Community blog yesterday,

I chose to participate in this lawsuit because there are changes that need to be made.  Leadership needs to be held accountable and women need to be able to work without the fear of being assaulted by their own colleagues.  This is one the hardest things I’ve ever done and I want to thank the other women that have stepped forward as well.  It’s never easy to put yourself out there and I’m sure there will be plenty of victim blaming and other trials that we all will have to deal with as a result of going public.

We got your back, Rebekah.

The Pentagon can’t ensure that sexual assault never happens in the military. But it can stop sweeping it under the rug when it does. And that can—and must—start immediately. Another plaintiff, Mary Gallagher, said, “It’s sad in a way that you have to file a lawsuit to get their attention.” Let’s hope it finally does.

Sign the Service Women’s Action Network’s petition to show your support.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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