The #MeToo movement, a creation of Turana Burke in 2006, gained wider audience when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted it in October 2017 as a response to media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual crimes. The hashtag serves to give voice to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape and broke open the floodgates of secrecy for women and men across the nation and around the globe. The hashtag spawned–and continues to spawn–a conversation about sexual crimes in society and has touched virtually every sector including the arts, sciences, humanities, hospitality, media, academia, and politics. And the #MeToo movement is taking on the military next.
There is fertile ground in the military community for a conversation surrounding the treatment of women in its ranks. The DoD estimates that 6,100 reported sexual assaults happened in 2016. Because roughly only one-third of assaults are ever reported, Stars and Stripes estimates that the number of actual assaults in the military may be closer to 18,300.
While sexual harassment and assault in the military has been a hot topic for years, the past few months have seen it growing to a fever pitch. The aftermath of the Marines United scandal in March 2017 saw a refocused, wider interest in sexual crimes in the military and veteran communities. The National Veterans Foundation has a dedicated #MeToo page to share veterans’ stories, which they first published in October 2017 at the onset of the #MeToo movement.
In November, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) reintroduced the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) with a myriad of bipartisan sponsors to the Senate. The bill seeks to reform the way sexual crimes are approached and and handled. “The Military Justice Improvement Act would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault and remove the systemic fear that survivors of military sexual assault describe in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them,” Gillibrand said in a press release. You can read the full text of the bill here.
In December, Antonieta Rico, the Director of Communications and Policy at the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), published a TIME Magazine op-ed addressing #MeToo in the military in TIME Magazine, saying “We are not invisible. America cannot continue to exclude military sexual assault from the national conversation. It is time for military commanders to face the #MeToo reckoning and be held accountable for the entrenched culture of sexual harassment and assault they have tolerated, and at times, participated in.”
And people outside the military are taking notice, too. In her widely feted speech after winning the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 2018 Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey included the military when she said:
So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.
The Pentagon itself has not addressed the #MeToo movement through programming. “We already have a very proactive position in this regard,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told Military.com. “We are already very active in regards to training and internal awareness campaigns to train our internal audience to understand what is unacceptable.” However, on January 8, a #MeToo rally was held at the Pentagon by SWAN. More than 40 service members, activists, and veterans attended. Speakers included retired brass and survivors.
In what some may see as a change of winds, the Pentagon endorsed the #MeToo rally to reporters. The Hill reports that spokesman Col. Rob Manning answered affirmatively when asked if the DoD “supports the objectives of the protesters.” In addition, several leaders in the DoD, including Dana White, chief Pentagon spokeswoman, attended the rally in a presumed show of support.
In response SWAN’s CEO, Lydia C. Watts, said, “True progress will be measured when there is a wholesale culture change in which retaliation is not tolerated, survivors feel safe coming forward and there are swift and fair prosecutions.”
By J.G. Noll