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NCIS Takes On Sexual Assault

(Trigger warning: sexual assault)

Buckle up, folks; this is gonna be a tough one. Tuesday’s episode of NCIS addressed the topic of sexual assault in the military. At times, the dialogue came off as a bit preachy, but overall, I applaud the writers of NCIS for choosing to address this growing problem.

I appreciated the way NCIS portrayed the junior officer who’d been sexually assaulted. She doesn’t want to press charges, she changes her story, and she runs the gamut of emotions from fear to anger to suspicion. I liked the fact that she admitted to having been out partying, enjoying a few drinks that night, and not really remembering what happened, and knowing that her assaulter was someone she knew. I like that the writers included these details because these things happen in real life.

Life isn’t tied up into a nice, tidy little package. Crimes aren’t always committed by that big, scary thug. Sometimes the people we trust do awful things. Sometimes people don’t make the best choices-or even good choices. Sometimes, you do everything right, but still find yourself in a bad situation. The situation never justifies sexual assault, a message that NCIS clearly delivered.  

During one of the more preachy exchanges in the episode, Bishop mentions how bad the number of sexual assault cases in the military is. But what do those numbers really look like?

According to Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for fiscal year 2012, 6.1% of women and 1.2% of active duty personnel reported unwanted sexual contact. At first glance, those numbers don’t seem particularly alarming.  However, when you break down the numbers, you begin to see how big of a problem this really is.

Approximately 1.4 million personnel serve on active duty. Of those 1.4 million, approximately 204,000 are women. That means that approximately 12,240 (6.1%) active duty servicewomen reported unwanted sexual contact in the DOD’s survey. Of the 1.2 million men on active duty, approximately 11,960 (1.2%) reported some form of unwanted sexual contact. Let that sink in for a second: approximately 12,240 women and 11,960 men, in one year, said they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. 67% of those women and 81% of those men did NOT report the unwanted sexual contact either to military or civilian authorities.

The victim’s troubles don’t end after the assault. If they choose to report the crime and if they have enough evidence, they can bring it to trial.

NCIS never shows the accused going to trial; that’s just not within the scope of the show. Typically, though, the team lines up enough evidence or gets a confession which all but means the bad guy is going to prison. But in this episode, Gibbs shows that the alleged perpetrator was assigned to the same boats as 9 separate women, all of whom were sexually assaulted in the same way.  This circumstantial evidence is all that Gibbs presents against the alleged criminal. At the end of the show, the team celebrates as though they just put a rapist behind bars when in reality, it would be very difficult to prove the allegations in court with the evidence they have.

Whether intentionally or not, the ending shows just how difficult it is to administer justice in these cases. A lot of times the evidence just isn’t there. Combine that with the several scandals regarding how the military has handled sexual assault cases, and you realize how difficult it is to prosecute these crimes. The military relies heavily on a strict chain of command; crimes get reported to your commanding officer. But what do you do when your commanding officer is the one who assaulted you? What do you do when your commander doesn’t believe you and refuses to hear your case or pass it up the chain of command?

Please understand that this post cannot thoroughly address the issue of sexual assault in the military nor is it meant to. I encourage you to do your own research on this issue. Because enough is enough already.

Enough with debating whether or not rape culture is a thing. Enough with derailing the conversation by arguing that people “cry rape” all the time. Enough with victim blaming. Enough with judges reducing the sentence of a rapist because the victim didn’t fit a narrow profile of a “real” victim. As a society, we need to deal with the prevalence of sexual violence experienced both by civilians and military personnel and we need to better equip bystanders, law enforcement, and the justice system to deal with this difficult subject.