Sexual harassment in the military now a crime under Biden order

Sexual harassment was formally added to the Uniform Code of Military Justice on Wednesday, a move that advocates hope can both help punish offenders and prevent other serious crimes from developing.

The executive order from President Joe Biden also ends some legal questions about whether military officials could prosecute the crime directly or would need to use other misconduct charges to effectively punish violators.

“This is a mechanism for there to be accountability when that’s appropriate, and we really don’t have that right now with these crimes,” said Lynn Rosenthal, who led the Pentagon’s Independent Review Commission reviewing sexual misconduct reforms last year.

“And I do think that it also helps create cultural change, to see that sexual harassment is being taken very seriously. This is something that causes a lot of harm on its own, and is also linked to these higher rates of sexual assault.”

A T-shirt worn by a soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., on April 17, 2020, represents efforts to prevent sexual harassment and assault in today’s Army.

Sexual assault survivors are twice as likely to leave the military voluntarily, report finds

An estimated one in every 16 women and one in 143 men experience sexual assault within the military services, according to a RAND study released last year.

Last summer, Rosenthal’s commission recommended the UCMJ changes among a list of other reforms aimed at curbing sexual misconduct in the ranks, and lawmakers mandated the moves as part of the annual defense authorization bill passed in December.

Under the language outlined in the defense bill, harassment is defined under the new code as making an unwanted sexual advance, demanding sexual favors or other inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature where victims are led to believe that refusal could endanger their career or safety.

The new language also specifies that harassment can occur in person or online, to include the unwanted sharing of intimate or pornographic imagery.

In 2019, officials added “revenge porn” to the UCMJ after the Marines United scandal, where nude images of female service members were posted online without their consent. At the time, military officials had lamented the lack of specific legal language to prosecute individuals involved in the activity.

The new stalking language now covers both spouses and dating partners. Previously, advocates had noted that service members would often only face repercussions under the law if they were married to the victim, if at all.

The executive order signing was not open to the press. Rosenthal said she and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were present in the Oval Office for the event, and spoke briefly to the president about ongoing military reforms after his signing.

In announcing the changes on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Pskai said the moves “honor the memory” of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, killed in April 2020 while serving at Fort Hood.

Guillen had confided in her family that she was being sexually harassed by an unnamed sergeant before her death, but was concerned that if she reported the incidents, it would hurt her military career.