The Military Does Try to Prevent Sexual Violence. It's Just Too Late | Opinion

Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen's death is a devastating reminder that education on consent and sexual violence cannot start in adulthood. It needs to be taught much earlier, before recruits arrive at any institution that expects adult behavior, whether it's boot camp, college or even a first job.

In the past week, 87 lawmakers have formally supported Representative Sylvia Garcia's letter demanding the inspector general of the Department of Defense determine how Fort Hood so terribly bungled Guillen's disappearance and investigation, while Senator Tammy Duckworth has called for an investigation into the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program.

These responses from lawmakers are important and necessary. However, they ignore the root of the problem, namely that education on consent, sexual violence and healthy relationships can't begin when someone arrives at boot camp. It has to start in elementary school, and right now there is no federal legislation to make sure it happens for every American child.

I served in the Marine Corps for six years and spent much of my career as a certified and commanding officer-appointed uniformed victims' advocate (UVA). I educated classes of Marines of all ranks on consent and sexual assault and harassment, and was formally trained to respond to and support victims of sexual assault.

While I was serving as a UVA, I had my own experience with sexual assault. After a first-date brunch with a fellow service member, he began touching me as I tried to leave his car afterward. No matter how many times I said no, he didn't stop. He was over 6 feet, at least 220 pounds, and I didn't know him well enough to feel sure he wouldn't hit me. My story's not unusual—for women in or out of uniform. Tragically, we have come to expect this experience for women.

There's a reason my job was created. Sexual violence in the military is a big problem, despite the prevention program having been around since 2005. In 2018, 24.2 percent of all active-duty women reported sexual harassment, and so did 6.3 percent of active-duty men. Recent studies also show sexual assault and harassment contribute to low retention rates of female troops.

Our military actually does a pretty decent job at trying to combat sexual violence; that is, leadership takes this seriously. And the commitment to addressing sexual violence doesn't end when someone separates from the military, either. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent roughly $872 million in 2010 to address the health effects of veterans' sexual assault, with roughly $11,000 allocated to treat each survivor.

Sexual assault prevention and response training is required annually for all service members, regardless of rank, and they're encouraged to report an assault even if it occurred before joining the military. Discussion topics during my own classes included defining consent and non-consent, role-playing scenarios on how to stop an assault from occurring, resources available to victims of sexual assault and harassment, and understanding how victim-blaming contributes to the cycle of abuse. But it's clear that even this detailed and mandatory training is not enough to fight sexual assault and harassment.

Even if we were to triple what the Defense Department spends on sexual violence prevention, I don't know how much that would accomplish. The problem, I've found both teaching Marines and being victimized myself, is that addressing issues of consent with young adults is too late. It's got to start earlier. Before they join the workforce, and even before they enter high school.

Justice for Vanessa Guillen
Demonstrators hold a banner demanding justice for slain U.S. Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen in Los Angeles on July 12. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

While the department's work will never be perfect, none of what it is doing was enough to help Guillen. According to reporting from The Washington Post, before she went missing in April, Guillen told her family that she was being sexually harassed but feared reporting the harassment due to anticipated backlash from her leadership.

Most perpetrators and victims of sexual assault within the military are between 17 and 24 years old. One study on sexual assault and harassment at the service academies found that when student cadets don't report assault or harassment it is often because they didn't feel their situation was serious enough, they were ashamed or embarrassed, and they "cannot or will not identify disrespectful experiences as unacceptable behavior."

That age bracket isn't unique to the military, though. When people turn 17, they are already in the "most vulnerable" category at risk of both being assaulted and being perpetrators, whether they are in the military or not. A 2020 report found that women on civilian college campuses reported only 30 percent of assaults, for similar reasons to those in the military. In total, 24.8 percent of students reported that sexual assault and misconduct was either "very" or "extremely" problematic at their school.

Both the military and colleges have many reporting mechanisms in place, but they're clearly not as useful as the institutions hope they would be. Even I didn't report my assault, and I was a victim's advocate. Preventing sexual violence has to happen before anyone sets foot on a base or a campus—because we're running out of options there.

What we need is something like the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015. Senator Tim Kaine introduced such a bill after students at a Virginia university emphasized the need for education before arriving at college. The bill died, and its language was watered down and absorbed into the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA guidance mentions "healthy practices" as a guideline but doesn't include consent or "healthy romantic relationships."

Although some states do instruct on these topics, the variation between states is extreme. Only eight states and D.C. require that consent education be taught in schools, although there's no consensus between states on the definition of "consent." Only about half of U.S. states require that, if provided, sexual education be "medically accurate," and definitions of "medically accurate" also vary widely. And many states don't mandate education on "healthy relationships," including communication, setting boundaries, respect and conflict resolution, all critical parts of a healthy romantic relationship. We expect our teens to magically already know this, and we are failing them.

If we don't mandate consent and healthy relationships education throughout grade school, we'll keep responding to sexual assault and harassment—even in tragic cases with victims like Vanessa Guillen—instead of preventing them from happening in the first place.

Kelsey Baker is a former Marine who deployed to Kuwait and to Iraq. She holds an M.A. in diplomacy, with a concentration in international terrorism. Her Twitter handle is @BzGorda.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.