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.”
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 beleive 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.
Her murder was not directly connected to that harassment, but became a point of advocacy for her family in the months after her death.
Jen Klein, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the Gender Policy Council, said that Guillen’s experiences and her family’s work “have raised tremendous attention to the need for military justice reform, and on sexual harassment in particular.”
White House officials noted that the latest changes work alongside other reforms passed by Congress, including taking sexual assault prosecution decisions out of the traditional military chain of command and instead giving that authority to a to-be-formed independent military legal office.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.