Defense Secretary directs DoD to make sexual harassment a crime in the military

Photo credit U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez Martinez

The day before the Pentagon released a report showing that incidents of sexual harassment have spiked in the military, the acting Secretary of Defense said DoD plans to make sexual harassment a crime.

Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan said classifying sexual harassment in the military as a criminal offense is a move to combat the “scourage” of sexual harassment and assault in the service.

Shanahan approved recommendations from the DoD Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force and directed DoD to “immediately identify needed actions to implement” a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment, according to a May 1 memo released by DoD Thursday.

“Our military justice system is unparalleled and unique in that it treats behaviors counter to good order and discipline as crimes while providing comprehensive support to victims throughout the process,” Shanahan said in the memo. “Remaining unparalleled requires constant scrutiny and reevaluation.”

DoD is expected to provide Shanahan a plan to establish harassment as a crime by the end of September.

"To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other," Shanahan said. "This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head-on. We must, and will, do better."

Shanahan’s memo was released the day before a Pentagon report that showed a nearly 38 percent increase in sexual assaults in the military over the last two years. The report, based on an anonymous survey conducted by DoD every two years, showed 20,500 sexual assaults in the military in 2018 -- a sharp increase from two years ago, when the number was 14,900, and close to the number of assaults in 2014, 20,300.

Sexual harassment is a leading factor affecting unit climate on sexual assault, the report said, with 1 in 5 women who were sexually harassed also being assaulted and 1 in 12 men, making sexual harassment a significant potential precursor to sexual assault.

"Collectively, we must do everything we can to eliminate sexual harassment and assault in the military," Shanahan said. "Sexual assault is illegal and immoral, is inconsistent with the military's mission, and will not be tolerated. We will not rest until all service members can serve in an environment of dignity and respect."

If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence or needs help, call the National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673 24/7 or go to The DoD also has a Safe Helpline for live, one-on-one support that is confidential, anonymous and available worldwide, 24/7.
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