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Biden makes sexual harassment an offense under military law

President Joe Biden signs a bill Aug. 31, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
January 27, 2022

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday making sexual harassment an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The order also aims to improve how the United States military handles domestic violence and the wrongful distribution of intimate photos.

According to a White House statement, the new EO “establishes sexual harassment as a specific offense under the UCMJ” and “strengthens the military justice response in prosecuting cases of domestic violence.” It also “fully implements changes to the military justice code to criminalize the wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate visual images.”

The White House said the administration’s efforts to combat “gender-based violence” has become “even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Today marks another turning point for survivors of gender-based violence in the military,” the administration asserted. “Moving forward, the Administration will continue to advance prevention, promote safe and respectful military climates, and strengthen care and support for survivors.”

The order comes after a bipartisan group of senators slammed the Pentagon for moving too slowly to fight sexual assault in the US military.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, eight senators – including three from the Armed Services Committee – expressed their “disappointment and concern” with the department’s “vague approach and lax timeline” to combating sexual assault, specifically noting Austin’s decision to take almost a decade to implement key aspects of the DoD’s response.

“The men and women who serve in our military cannot continue to operate another day, let alone another decade, under a chain of command that is unwilling or incapable of taking decisive action to address this epidemic,” the senators wrote. “A problem of this magnitude demands an immediate, proportionate response.”

The Army had previously announced it would open by March 2022 seven centers for sexual assault and harassment survivors as part of the broader effort to improve reporting, case, and justice.

The goal is to boost “accountability, transparency, and efficiency by coordinating all victim response elements, including victim advocates, medical care providers, law enforcement investigators, and criminal prosecutors” under one roof, said Col. Erica Cameron, who led the redesign of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.

“By synchronizing, and in some cases co-locating, these support services, either physically or virtually, it will be easier for victims to get the help they need and empower them to navigate what can be an emotional and complex process starting from when they make an initial report through case resolution and long-term care and recovery,” Cameron said.