Military Sexual Assault Is a Moral Injury


Despite decades of “no tolerance” policies, millions of servicemembers receiving required annual training, policy reforms, and congressional scrutiny, the findings of the Fort Hood Independent Review conducted in the wake of the murder of Vanessa Guillen demonstrate that sexual assault remains an ongoing and serious problem in the military. Indeed, reports of sexual assault increased in 2020. Yet, despite the seriousness of this issue, perpetrators of sexual assault in the military are rarely held accountable. Recently, a bill proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — first brought forward nearly a decade ago, but which in the wake of the Guillen case has now won sufficient votes to pass the Senate — aims to address this problem by moving the decision to prosecute sexual assaults, among other serious nonmilitary crimes, from the hands of military commanders to specially trained military prosecutors.

This bill is a vital step in the fight against military sexual assault. If it passes the Senate, not only will it potentially result in more prosecutions of sexual assault cases, but it will provide a rare public acknowledgment of how military institutional failures have contributed to the harms suffered by victims of sexual assault. To understand these failures, and the reform that is needed to address them, we should begin with the recognition that military sexual assault is a form of interpersonal and institutional moral injury. Naming military sexual assault as moral injury is a moral imperative because it demonstrates respect for sexual assault victims. Additionally, because combat-related moral injury is regarded as a significant moral harm by many in the military, using the language of moral injury to talk about military sexual assault has the potential to shift longstanding dismissive attitudes toward sexual assault prevention policies and procedures, and to cultivate greater respect for sexual assault victims.



The Problem of Sexual Assault in the Military

The problem of sexual assault in the military is not just one of accountability. Numerous military training and education programs teach military personnel about the harm of sexual assault and the importance of treating victims with respect. Nonetheless, military commanders have been known to dismiss such training and prevention programs as unimportant or trivial. For example, a captain quoted in a 2015 report on dishonesty in the Army described his approach to mandatory Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SHARP) training as follows: “We needed to get SHARP training done and reported to higher headquarters, so we called the platoons and told them to gather the boys around the radio and we said, ‘Don’t touch girls.’ That was our quarterly SHARP training.” Similarly, the November 2020 review of the command climate at the Army base at Fort Hood, Texas, found that “there was an environment at Fort Hood that allowed sexual assault and harassment to proliferate” and documented a lack of enforcement of, and respect for, SHARP: “Rather than viewing SHARP as a critical component of Soldier safety, morale, and respect, NCOs and officers at the Company/Troop level and below, treated SHARP as a perfunctory task, not a priority.” A 2019 Department of Defense study confirmed that such attitudes toward sexual assault prevention programs are a factor in the persistence of high rates of sexual assault and harassment in the military.

This disdain for sexual assault prevention and response training and the failure to hold perpetrators accountable are examples of how institutional practices and unit and command culture can trivialize the harm of sexual assault and deny the victims the respect that they deserve. But this disdain is symptomatic of entrenched institutional and cultural norms that compound the harm of sexual assault within the military. According to researchers, the continued toleration of sexual assault and harassment in the military has its roots in informal socialization practices that encourage “valorization of control, power, competition, and pain tolerance; the celebration of heterosexual virility; and the denigration of traits associated with femininity.” This is an extreme form of what Stoney Portis and I call a toxic warrior identity, in which traits such as courage, toughness, and loyalty are distorted by practices such as “hazing and abusive sexualized language targeting women and others perceived as weak.”

This ongoing and entrenched tolerance of sexual assault in the military shows that the current approaches to prevention and training are simply not working. Addressing this problem is complex and arguably cannot be separated from problematic social and cultural attitudes toward sexual assault that permeate American society. But, within the military context, thinking of military sexual assault through the lens of moral injury offers a ­­new way of understanding the harm of military sexual assault that res­­pects victims’ moral standing and has the potential to shift entrenched attitudes.

Sexual Assault as Moral Injury

Since Jonathan Shay first coined the term in Achilles in Vietnam in 1995, moral injury has been discussed extensively by military ethicists, philosophers and psychologists. But, despite this extensive body of literature, relatively few authors have viewed sexual assault in the military through the lens of moral injury. Instead, accounts of moral injury typically define it as the moral distress experienced by veterans who have perpetrated or witnessed “acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” or “grievous moral transgressions that can overwhelm one’s sense of goodness and humanity.” Researchers on sexual assault in the military likewise don’t often describe the trauma of sexual assault as a form of moral injury. Instead, some classify it as a form of institutional betrayal.

Yet, sexual assault in any context is an interpersonal moral injury because it is attack on the victim’s moral standing and moral status. As the philosopher Jean Hampton argues, rape is not simply a physical attack, it is “an affront to the victim’s value or dignity.” Other philosophers agree. Victims of sexual assault often suffer not only physical and psychological trauma, but also a devastating loss of moral trust in others and in themselves: an experience that can be long-lasting and extremely traumatic.

I have argued elsewhere that the profound moral harm of sexual assault is compounded when social, legal, and political narratives minimize the harm of sexual assault, blame sexual assault victims for their own victimization, and fail to adequately hold perpetrators accountable. Additionally, victims of sexual assault often suffer worse physical and psychological outcomes when the institutions that are supposed to support or protect them (such as colleges and churches) fail to do so. Thus, victims of sexual assault may feel that their experiences are trivialized or disbelieved and that, to the institutions that failed them, the criminal justice system, and even society at large, the perpetrators’ welfare matters more than their pain.

If this is true for victims of sexual assault in the civilian world, it is doubly so for victims of sexual assault in the military. The combination of the institutional failures and dismissive and contemptuous attitudes described above contributes to the ongoing toleration of sexual assault in the military and disdain for programs such as SHARP. These factors compound the moral injury of sexual assault by undermining the ability of sexual assault victims to have their suffering given the recognition that it deserves and their moral protest heard — their protest that the way they were treated was morally wrong and that the moral disrespect shown to them by the perpetrators must be rejected. These dismissive attitudes mean that victims of sexual assault are effectively treated as if they are “second class moral citizens” who matter less than other people and whose suffering needn’t be taken seriously. Sexual assault victims in the military are thus doubly morally injured — first, by the attack itself, and then by institutional, structural, and cultural norms that betray them by minimizing their suffering and denying them true accountability and respect.

The Importance of Naming Military Sexual Assault as Moral Injury

Why use the language of moral injury to talk about sexual assault in the military? After all, there are already numerous education and training materials that clearly spell out the harm of sexual assault and call for military personnel to take action to prevent it. What would adding this new dimension to educational and prevention efforts change?

Naming sexual assault as an interpersonal and institutional moral injury matters because the language that we use to talk about sexual assault shapes our moral understanding of the harm of sexual assault and our attitudes towards survivors. It is possible that adopting the language of moral injury in public speeches, discussions, educational materials, and training materials will help cultivate attitudinal changes toward sexual assault, but that is not the only or even the most important reason to do so. Naming military sexual assault as moral injury is a moral duty that is owed to the victims of sexual assault. Carrying out this duty publicly acknowledges their suffering, affirms their moral standing, and recognizes the role that the military institution has played in compounding that moral injury. This is why the bill proposed by Gillibrand is so important: it is a first step toward carrying out the duty owed to victims. But, until such a public acknowledgement is widely accepted within the military, victims will continue to be denied the moral respect and standing they deserve, and so will continue to be morally injured by the very institution that is supposed to protect them.



CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Senate legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand proposes removing the decision to prosecute other serious nonmilitary crimes in addition to sexual assault from the chain of command.

Jessica Wolfendale, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Marquette University. She is the author of War Crimes: Causes, Excuses, and Blame (with Matthew Talbert), and Torture and the Military Profession, and has published numerous articles and book chapters on topics including military ethics, terrorism, torture, and security. Many of her works are available here.

Image: Office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand