The War on Sexual Assault in the Military Just Lost a Major Battle

General Sinclair is given a free pass to commit sexual assault. And so is every other man in the military.

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Today’s sentencing of disgraced Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, just confirms that the military fosters a sexually intimidating environment, female officers be damned. Sinclair, who admitted to having a three-year affair with one of his female junior officers, was accused of forcing her to perform fellatio and threatening to kill her family if she exposed their relationship. When the case began, it was possible that Sinclair, who is married with children, would face life in prison—in the military even adultery is a crime and his behavior went well beyond that. But this morning, Sinclair wasn’t sentenced to life in prison. He wasn’t sentenced to prison at all. In fact, as part of a plea bargain, the sexual assault charges were dropped, Sinclair was allowed to remain in the military, and, despite a $5,000 per month fine for four months, will be allowed to keep his pension (!!!!) and other benefits.

This in unspeakably awful for Sinclair’s accuser who is, according to her attorney Jamie Barnett, “obviously devastated.” But the precedent that’s been set reaches well beyond her anguish. This case, which has been going on for two years, has essentially been the face of sexual assault in the military, reports of which have skyrocketed. Last year, a release from the Pentagon showed a 46 percent increase in reported incidents across all branches in 2012 over 2011. That means 26,000 people claimed sexual assault, rape, or unwanted sexual contact and of those cases, can you guess how many were prosecuted? Three hundred and two! And when the highest profile case of them all (Sinclair is only the third Army general to be court-martialed in the last 60 years) starts with a roar and ends with a whimper, you can bet the message it reinforces is anything but progressive. Which is disappointing, sure, but shouldn’t be all that surprising when, as Mark Thompson at Time points out, the military’s “command climate” seems to readily accept that sexual assault is a given, and the commanding officer is always right. Take for instance, the skit performed by two male soldiers at a 2010 going away party for Sinclair, when his assignment in Germany was ending. It involved one soldier pretending to be Sinclair and another donning a brown wig while pretending to be his accuser, putting his face in the other’s crotch while offering oral sex. According to the Lieutenant Colonel who testified about the skit, the crowd of over 500 partygoers laughed.

If people in the military think sexual assault is a joke, at least some members of Congress are taking it seriously, though not enough to create real change. A bill sponsored by New York Representative Kirsten Gillibrand that would’ve taken sex crime prosecution away from military commanders, and given it instead to independent military prosecutors, died on the floor earlier this month, five votes short of what it needed to overcome a filibuster. It was a bill created because what’s in place now, obviously isn’t working. Prosecutors in Sinclair’s case lost ground when the accuser was suspected of perjury in a pretrial hearing and when decisions made by commanding officers appeared to be politically motivated. “Nobody can come away from the case thinking this is a really good system,” Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, told the New York Times earlier this month. Nobody except the perpetrators it protects. “The system worked,” Sinclair told the Washington Post after the sentencing. “I’ve always been proud of my Army.”

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