Biden Makes Sexual Harassment a Crime Under UCMJ

January 26, 2022Maggie BenZvi

Midshipmen at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, Oct. 7, 2016. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samantha K. Braun. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Sexual harassment is now a crime in the military after President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday, Jan. 26, adding it to the Uniform Code of Military Justice as a prosecutable offense.

The move, which finalized rules passed by Congress in 2021, comes after years of louder and louder calls for change in the way the military justice system addresses sexual misconduct.

According to a survey of active-duty service members performed by Rand Corp., approximately 119,000 individuals reported instances of sexual harassment in 2018. Rand estimated that approximately one in every four female service members and one in every 16 male service members would experience sexual harassment during their time in the military.

The issue of sexual harassment in the military began to loom large in the cultural consciousness following the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a soldier at Fort Hood who told her family on multiple occasions she was being harassed by a member of her chain of command. Guillén was later killed by a fellow soldier, but not by the man she had accused of harassment.

The Guillen family comfort each other after the unveiling of the Spc. Vanessa Guillén Gate at Fort Hood, Texas, April 19, 2021. Following her brutal murder, Guillén became the figurehead of the movement to reform the military justice system policy toward sexual misconduct. Photo by Sgt. Melissa N. Lessard.

Natalie Khawam, a lawyer for the Guillén family, is excited that aspects of her proposed I Am Vanessa Guillén bill made it into the NDAA and are now being enacted by executive order. “Today is another victory for our soldiers,” Khawam told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I look forward to scoring many more epic successes in our military and judicial system, so that every soldier has the rights and protections they need and deserve.”

After the 2022 NDAA was signed into law, US Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, made a public statement recognizing the effect Guillén’s death had on the momentum behind judicial change for sexual assault and harassment in the military. Guillén, Speier said, “was sexually harassed and [her] leadership was informed about it, yet they did nothing. Her brutal murder, however, turned one of too many moments of pain and loss into an unstoppable movement for change and accountability.”

The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act required the president to enact an executive order to punish acts where the accused knowingly made unwelcome sexual advances or demands for sexual favors or other conduct of a sexual nature under circumstances that would cause a person to believe their job might be affected by submission to that conduct, or such conduct that was so pervasive that it created a hostile working environment.

Sexual harassment will now be an offense punishable under Article 134 of the UCMJ. Article 134 contains a broad range of offenses that are considered prejudicial to good order and discipline in the armed forces and are punishable by courts-martial.

Read Next: Final Defense Bill Alters Military Sexual Assault Prosecutions, Disappoints Some Victim Advocates

Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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