Military Sexual Assault Hearing: Chambliss Slut-Shames, Gillibrand Schools Joint Chiefs


If Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services hearing on military sexual assault had any meaningful purpose, it was to draw the battle lines between those actually committed to fixing the problem with a meaningful solution, and those who oppose any change that would cede the smallest drop of power to anyone other than a commander.

On the fix-it side stood the committee’s women, both Republican and Democrat. The power-hoarding side was represented by all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several other military officers, and most of the committee’s Republican men. In the middle, offering half-measures, were several male senators, mostly Democrats.

That would appear to mean that meaningful change in the way that sexual assaults in the military are reported and prosecuted is unlikely to happen anytime soon, despite near-constant news of assault scandals, and the fact that the Pentagon itself estimated that 2012 yielded some 26,000 sexual assaults by members of the military against their comrades, only 3,300 of which were reported.

Despite having made noises that they were “open” to considering all legislative options, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, joined their fellow chiefs in rejecting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s call for taking the reporting and prosecution of sexual assaults in the military out of the chain of command, where those who dare to report assaults and rapes have often fared badly, subjected to retaliation and ostracized by others in their units. Gillibrand is currently sponsoring a bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, that would do just that.

Gillibrand flatly told the chiefs, “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you.”

She went on to explain her belief in the need for the adjudication of such crimes to be removed from the chain of command—as has been done by the militaries of such U.S. allies as the UK, Canada, Israel, and Australia—because, she said, not all commanders are keen to have women in the military, and others conflate assault with horseplay.

“Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape,” Gillibrand said. (Talking Points Memo has the clip.)

Winning the prize for unintentional hilarity—or, in Twitter parlance, a LOLsob—was Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who began his questioning of the chiefs with the the 1991 story of a Navy ship that arrive at port carrying 36 pregnant sailors. Chambliss wanted to know if those pregnancies had been investigated to determine whether or not they were the result of assault—an apparent attempt to slut-shame women soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. (Yes, they’re called “airmen,” regardless of gender.)

“The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee wiz,” Chambliss said. “The hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So, we’ve got to be very careful on our side.”

That must have felt like a moment of vindication for the Air Force’s Welsh, who took a lot of criticism after a hearing earlier this month for blaming the military’s rape culture on a “civilian hook-up mentality.” When commanders such as Welsh—the top man in his branch of the armed services—conflate rape with sex, it’s hard to see a rape survivor in the military getting much by way of justice so long as the crime is handled within the command chain.

RH Reality Check will have a full report on the hearing tomorrow.

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