Anecdotal evidence suggests sexual assault rates in the military are high, with as many as one in three women being sexually assaulted during their service. Neither the Department of Defense nor Veterans Affairs releases data on reported cases, though, so the exact extent of the problem is unknown. Now, frustrated by rejected Freedom of Information Act requests, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed a lawsuit in federal district court demanding the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs release the data and disclose what they’re doing to treat victims and prevent future abuse.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST), which includes rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, is devastating to victims. Many women who experience MST leave the military and experience post-traumatic stress disorder, but are denied treatment or support from the VA because they can’t prove they were abused. They are more likely to experience health problems, depression, substance abuse, and homelessness. The problem seems to be growing: From the limited data the ACLU has been able to obtain from DoD, reported sexual assaults increased 73 percent between 2004 and 2006, and 11 percent between 2008 and 2009.
The plaintiff's complaint makes the important connection between the high incidence of sexual assault and the government's apparent unwillingness to take the issue seriously. The issue resembles the problems inherent in "don't ask, don't tell," which enforces the rigid social norms that put women at risk of being abused while discouraging them from reporting it. So the problem isn't just on an individual basis; it's military policy (or lack thereof) from top to bottom. If the military is going to commit to providing a safe and open environment to all those who serve, it needs to do more than repeal DADT; the military will need clear policies to combat and punish sexual assault coupled with dedicated support for victims.
-- Sarah Babbage