We Need a War on Military Sexual Harassment

By: Kori Cioca; Originally posted on Women in the World/New York Times

How many times have we seen military harassment and sexual assault scandals unfold on television, only to be followed by a replicated statement read by top brass condemning the actions and promising justice, accountability, and “zero tolerance?”

I can tell you that for me, it’s been too many times.

As a survivor of military sexual assault, I know firsthand that words don’t ensure justice or accountability, and that “zero tolerance” means little in a culture where violence and misogyny continue to be perpetuated. I can’t help but feel enraged when watching these statements, knowing that harsher punishments will come to the victims, their families, and those who speak out against this behavior than to those who perpetrated the abuse.

Surely, military top brass could come up with better tactics for this war on sexual harassment. Even the Marines behind the “Marines United” Facebook Page, where photos of their female service members were posted without consent, aren’t scared about the consequences of their actions. When Marine Commandment General Robert Neller spoke out to condemn the scandal, his rank and warning was blatantly disregarded as new photos continued to be posted. The lack of consequences emboldened the perpetrators, assuring them protection from “whistleblowers” speaking out against this abuse.

That term, “whistleblower,” is derogatory in the military. Even though Marine Corps values encourage doing the “right” and “honorable” thing, what the institutional culture pushes is to do the opposite. Seeing a trend yet? We have yet to see military females set up a Facebook page exploiting their male comrades. Why? Is it because females have more respect, integrity, and devotion to duty? No. It’s because many women know firsthand how it feels to be dehumanized, especially by people they trusted and respected, and wouldn’t subject another human being to that type of treatment. It’s because their male counterparts can get drunk, take off their clothes and make lewd comments without any fear, but any female service member who might do the same is branded a “slut” or “whore.” And it’s because rape culture is so ingrained that those who speak out against it are shunned, instead of those who rape and perpetuate abuse.

Sexual harassment and assault has become so normalized, one would think it was issued with the uniform. But it isn’t — it comes with the wrong leadership and disgusting individuals who hide behind the honorable uniform. There are more honorable service members than dishonorable ones. I have met many commanders who practice and not just preach “zero tolerance.” Their bases set a powerful standard for sexual assault prevention. This is obtained by not just working with top leadership, but with younger, newly enlisted service members as well. Top leadership has set the tone for what is expected, and anything less is dealt with at the most extreme level. Their members respect the rank, their uniform, and each other — so much that if a newcomer arrives without those standards, they will be put into place or sent to the commander. There is power and control with fear. This is how perpetrators get away with their actions. It’s time for top brass to stop the lip service and exercise their power.

I’m looking for our commander in chief to address this scandal. He told the American people how much he loves our military and respects women. Here, we have military females being exploited, harassed, and sexually assaulted under his first term. Our Marines, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force need their leader to confront this issue with the same hate that fuels his angry tweets about the media.

To the women who have been directly involved in this latest scandal: You aren’t alone, you did nothing wrong, and you are entitled to the time needed to reflect and recover. I stand beside you, as do so many others. We are here. We will not be silent.

I sympathize with the honorable men and women who have been embarrassed by this stain upon the Marine Corps. You have the power to expose, confront, and remove the dishonorable from your Corps. Thank you for your service and continued sacrifice.

Kori Cioca is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and Peace is Loud speaker. Follow her on Twitter here.