The ‘I Am Vanessa Guillén’ Act Would Make Military Sexual Harassment a Crime

Supermajority Education Fund

September 22, 2020

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, which, if enacted, would drastically change the way the military addresses sexual assault within its ranks. The bill is named for 20-year-old Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén, whose disappearance this summer began a nationwide conversation about how the military handles allegations of harassment and assault.

“‘I Am Vanessa Guillén’ has become a rallying cry across the country for survivors speaking out against the toxic rot in the military around harassment and sexual assault,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), the main sponsor of the legislation, said at a press conference last Wednesday. Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The bill currently has 73 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. After meeting with the Guillén family last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that the bill would come to a vote on the House floor this session. Some hope the vote will occur on Sept. 30, which would have been Guillén’s 21st birthday.

“We’re suffering a crisis of sexual harassment and assault in the U.S. military,” Lupe Guillén — Vanessa Guillén’s sister, and one of several family members that attended the event announcing the legislation — told reporters at the press conference.  “Vanessa Guillén fought for us. And now it’s time to fight for her.”

Supporters are particularly encouraged that the bill would classify sexual harassment as crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the federal law that defines criminal offenses under military law. The bill would also move cases of sexual assault outside of the military chain of command, instead tasking an independent prosecutor with determining whether the case would move forward. Survivors of sexual assault would also be able to file claims with the Department of Defense for monetary compensation.

The guarantee that sexual assault and harassment cases would be independently investigated outside of a service member’s chain of command is “something survivors have been asking for a long time,” Anton Tripolskii, a Training & Technical Assistance Specialist at the Battered Women’s Justice Project, told Supermajority News. “Currently, when a service member reports that they have been assaulted “[their] commanding officer right now has the right to decide what to do,” Tripolskii explained. This is the case even when the accused is under their command or if the commanding officers themselves have been accused of assault. 

“A lot of people outside of the military have trouble conceptualizing that your supervisor and your boss’s boss really control everything in your personal and professional life when you are a service member,” said Tripolskii. “They have a lot more power than your civilian boss ever would.”

These conflicts of interest, combined with a reluctance to confide in a direct supervisor, lead many survivors to never officially report their experiences of harassment or assault to the military. “Right now, we know that a negligible number of survivors feel like they are going to have justice if they report,” said Tripolskii. 

A 2019 Department of Defense report on sexual assault in the military found that the number of service members who experienced sexual assault was rising in all branches of the military, yet only 30 percent of the victims came forward. Those low numbers are why advocates and service members have been calling for independent investigations of sexual assaults for decades. “Anything that raises the confidence of service members when it comes to reporting is a good thing,” said Tripolskii.

The current system also leads many service members who experience harassment and assault to cut their military careers years shorter than they otherwise would, which in turn causes them to miss out on benefits and pension plans that long-serving senior service members accrue. “A lot of service members leave because there is no way out otherwise,” said Tripolskii, especially if they have to work alongside their assailants. “Many of them also leave involuntarily because they take medical leave because they are suffering from mental health or physical health issues.”

In addition to better serving survivors of assault, this bill would also spur much needed changes in military culture. The legislation calls for the Government Accountability Office to investigate how each branch of the armed services handles cases of missing service members — a deeply flawed process that has also been heavily criticized by family members and the general public since Guillén’s disappearance and the discovery of her body. 

“Commanding officers view their power as their own and don’t like interference in it,” noted Tripolskii, adding that, in many cases, the current system works in terms of military discipline. “But time and time again, unfortunately, it’s been proven that the current system simply isn’t working for survivors of gender-based violence.”