Retaliation Against Military Sexual Assault

Whistleblowers are Bad and Getting Worse


Human Rights Watch, a non-profit dedicated to defending the rights of people worldwide, has published a report on sexual assault in the US military, focusing on the retaliations that often come to victims of sexual assault who report the abuse. HRW worked with Protect Our Defenders on an 18-month investigation to determine the extent and severity of sexual assault in the military and retaliation against reporters of sexual assault. The report spans 113 pages and details that “both male and female military personnel who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense.”


Retaliation Takes Many Forms

Stopping Sexual AssaultVictims that have reported sexual assault experience a wide variety of retaliation: threats, vandalism, and harassment, but also being given undesirable work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, and disciplinary action including discharge, and even criminal charges. This sort of situation is the exact opposite of what it should be. The HRW’s report goes into depth on the causes and potential solutions to this problem. According to HRW, the military can’t reasonably expect sexual assault reporting to increase or even stay level when the majority of reporters are retaliated against and the retaliators usually go unpunished.


“The US military’s progress in getting people to report sexual assaults isn’t going to continue as long as retaliation for making a report goes unpunished,” said Sara Darehshori, senior US counsel at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “”


Unfortunately, there aren’t very many avenues that victims can currently use to be protected from retaliations and get relief when they occur. While 62% of those who report sexual assault experience retaliation in some form, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act (essentially the only mechanism in place to protect from retaliation) has yet to assist a single service member whose career was harmed by retaliation.


The Difficulties in Pursuing Justice

Sexual assault is one of the most tricky things to pursue justice for because it is very subjective in nature. Stealing is stealing; even those who steal are generally willing to admit that what they are doing is stealing. However, those who are accused of sexual assault usually feel wrongly accused and offended. Often, they feel victimized by their accuser because of the potential impact the accusation will have on their career and entire life, especially if found guilty. When in that situation, it is not shocking at all that many would turn to retaliation against the person they feel is lying about them and making up stories.


There are countless situations where the abuser has no idea that the attention or actions are unwanted or inappropriate while the victim is getting more and more uncomfortable as time goes on. Too often, the victim never makes their discomfort known to the abuser and reports directly to the authorities when it gets too bad. The first time the abuser is aware that there’s a problem at all, it’s in the form of a call to their superior’s office to discuss their behavior.

Military Justice Served

To exacerbate the issue further, everyone has different boundaries. What one person would consider sexual assault is totally fine to another. This makes it difficult for those who genuinely have no interest in sexually assaulting anyone to stay in the clear. As if all the issue wasn’t already complicated enough, there are plenty of abusers out there who genuinely don’t care if their victim consents or not and just want their satisfaction. The only way superiors looking for justice have of sorting out who’s who and what really happened is asking those involved and hoping that they’re honest.


No matter how you look at it, it’s a difficult and complicated situation. Regardless, sexual assault is a real and significant problem and it needs to be addressed. A good balance needs to be found where those abusers who sincerely meant no harm and had no idea there was a problem can be treated differently than those who were aware that their actions were inappropriate, and where retaliation is never acceptable and always punished, even for those that were originally wrongly-accused.


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