When I first married a Navy sailor, I gave my parents a list of acronyms and words I’d be using. My mom hung it on the fridge for easy translation during phone conversations. And through the years I’ve been asked things like, “How do you do it when he’s gone?” I’ve seen the surprise in a new civilian friend’s eyes when she discovers how many times we’ve moved in our 16 years of marriage. (And our number is low, compared to many.) This life is what I know, though. And after all these years of living it, I forget that in some ways its quite different from my civilian counterparts.
That’s why I was glad that a friend asked me, “How is sexual assault handled in the military?” She thought that I might know more about it that she does and although, I’m not an expert, by any standard, I have had opportunities that give me a few notes I can share.
Let’s begin with some definitions. In the military world, sexual assault means “intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. It includes rape, aggressive or abusive sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy (oral or anal sex), indecent assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling) or attempts to commit these acts.” (Sexual Assault and Prevention) Notice it’s not only rape. Touching without consent is also reportable and taken seriously.
The Navy has two avenues of reporting – restricted and unrestricted. Restricted reporting allows a victim of sexual assault to report the offense to an advocate and to seek medical care and counseling without an investigation taking place. The victims command will not be notified. Unrestricted reporting means that the victim is opening the case for investigation and command involvement. The alleged crime will continue to be kept confidential, except for those that need to know, but once this string is pulled, it cannot be unpulled. Reports of sexual assault can go from restricted to unrestricted but cannot go the other way.
The SAPRO (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office) handles all cases where military members are involved. That means that if a service member is accused of committing a crime, is the victim of an assault, or both parties are in the military, SAPRO provides the policies and protocol to investigate the case and help the victim through the process.
One of the helps that is offered to victims of sexual assault is the Safe Helpline. It’s program run by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) that is manned 24/7 around the world. Anyone can find information on the website about how to get help for a friend, prevention, or any other piece of the tangled web of sexual assault. There is also a hotline number for victims to call for support.
Another helping hand for victims is the Victim Advocate (VA) program. VAs are on call 24/7 to be there for victims who report their assaults. They can meet them at the hospital to help them through the process of getting a sexual assault kit done. They can attend court proceedings with them. VAs are essentially there for the victims to answer questions along the way, refer them to counseling services, and assure them that they’re not alone.
The statistics for reports of sexual assaults have been changing a great deal in the last several years. Increased attention, conversations, and training have led to an increase in the number of reports of sexual assaults while the prevalence of attacks has gone down. What that means is that more people are coming forward about what’s happening to them. This is a great thing!
The numbers from the last year will come out next month, but this was said in a report from late 2014.
Given that the past-year prevalence(occurrence) of sexual assault decreased from Fiscal Year 2012 to Fiscal Year 2014,the importance of this upward trend in reporting cannot be overstated. Increased reporting signals not only growing trust of command and confidence in the response system, but serves as the gateway to provide more victims with support and to hold a greater number of offenders appropriately accountable.
So, while the Navy, and probably the military at large has work to do in the area of sexual assault prevention and response (just like the civilian world around us) – they are doing that work. Progress is being made. People are being helped.