In recent years, the scourges of sexual assault and harassment have finally been brought to the forefront of public discourse. A culture that has long been permissive of such misdeeds and misbehavior – and provided far too little in terms of recourse and support for victims – is now confronting a painful legacy.
Sexual assault and harassment cut across demographic lines and affect every corner of society, including some of our most esteemed institutions. There is no quick or easy way to adequately address such deep-seated problems. Bringing them to light, however, provides an invaluable starting point.
U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican with roots in Rhode Island, has courageously advanced the cause by sharing her own story.
Last year, she disclosed publicly that she had been pressured into having sex with her track coach at St. Mary Academy-Bay View in East Providence when she was 17.
“Even though he didn’t physically force me, it certainly was an emotional manipulation,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
Then last week, during powerful, personal testimony before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee, McSally revealed that she was raped by a superior officer during her service in the U.S. Air Force – one of multiple instances of sexual assault she experienced while in uniform.
“Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time,” she said. “I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. And I thought I was strong, but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways. In one case, I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.”
She added, “I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled. I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again. But I didn’t quit.”
McSally’s profile is that of anything but a quitter, and it cuts against what most might imagine for a victim. Her record of service and accomplishment is lengthy and well documented.
She served in the Air Force for 26 years, becoming the first woman to both fly a fighter in combat and command a fighter squadron in combat. She also famously – and successfully – challenged a Pentagon policy that required servicewomen to wear traditional, body-covering garments while traveling off base in Saudi Arabia.
She retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a colonel and went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives before being appointed to the U.S. Senate seat previously held by the late John McCain.
“I think I bring a unique and important perspective,” she told her fellow senators last week.
McSally said that when entered Air Force Academy as part of ninth class to include women, sexual assault and harassment were “prevalent.”
“During my 26 years in uniform, I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation and adjudication,” she said.
The years since have brought improvements, McSally said, but the work is far from over. The most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Defense, for fiscal year 2017, speak to that reality.
The department received 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or suspects, according to the “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.” That represents an increase of nearly 10 percent from the previous fiscal year.
The Pentagon’s report suggests that the increase is attributable to more victims coming forward. It states that studies have found rates of sexual assault have decreased by half for women and two-thirds for men over the past 10 years. At the same time, one in three victims now report sexual assault – up from an estimated one in 14 in 2006.
While those trends, if true, are certainly encouraging, it is nonetheless clear that sexual assault continues to be an extensive problem within the ranks.
No one, anywhere, should be subjected to sexual abuse, assault or harassment. No one, anywhere – least of all those who put their lives on the line in service to the nation – should be made to feel that they have no recourse and no choice but to be silent. No one, anywhere, who commits an act of sexual violence or aggression should feel they can do so with impunity.
During last week’s testimony, McSally spoke of others who have shared their stories.
“It’s because of you that a light has been shined on this silent epidemic,” she told other victims who testified.
We thank McSally for sharing her story. She does, indeed, bring a “unique and important perspective” to the table. She also brings a voice that cannot be ignored and a strength that will no doubt inspire and empower others.