In summary

Proposed state legislation would make it clear that sexual harassment is punishable within California’s military ranks. Until federal reform of the military justice system takes place, California should seize this opportunity to lead by taking action.

By Eleni Kounalakis

Eleni Kounalakis is the lieutenant governor of California, Eleni.kounalakis@ltg.ca.gov.

Susan Talamantes Eggman, Special to CalMatters

Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Democrat from Stockton, represents the 5th Senate District, Senator.TalamantesEggman@senate.ca.gov.

“The Invisible War,” a 2012 documentary about the culture of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, stunned Americans and was nominated for an Academy Award. This powerful film prompted a congressional inquiry on the subject. 

More recently, the tragic death of U.S. Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen reignited public outcry for change in how the military handles reports of sexual harassment and assault. It is indisputable that the federal government needs to pass reform for the protection of all who bravely serve our country. 

We are proud to be partnering on Senate Bill 352, a California Legislative Women’s Caucus priority bill that will make sexual harassment a crime in California’s military ranks (including the Office of the Adjutant General, California National Guard, State Guard, California Cadet Corps and Naval Militia).

While federal representatives work for change in Washington, California has an opportunity to do as it always does — lead the nation by taking meaningful action with the passage of SB 352. 

Federal representatives such as Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, have introduced legislation to bring about federal reform. While recent support for change from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is promising, more than a year after Guillen’s death, meaningful reform efforts have yet to be realized.

Sexual harassment is not a crime in the U.S. military. Senate Bill 352 would make it a stand-alone offense in California’s incorporation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, thus removing any question that sexual harassment is punishable in California’s military ranks.

The bill’s message of zero tolerance for sexual harassment conveys an important message to both victims (who might be less likely to report sexual harassment without clear indication that it is a punishable offense) and potential perpetrators.

Creating a stand-alone offense also will ensure updated training for military justice practitioners and a full range of defense resources for victims. 

The bill also would require release of statistical data from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Report, which documents sexual crimes, as well as the state policies, procedures, assessments and prevention plans. Access to this data creates more transparency and allows for increased oversight from elected officials and the public.

SB 352 bill also clarifies that crimes committed while on duty are not protected from civil or criminal liability. Federal law applies, however, if California Guards are sent to join federal troops.

Research, including a 2019 Department of Defense report, demonstrates that someone who commits sexual harassment is more likely to commit sexual assault. In fact, an April 2019 Department of Defense Joint Service Committee on Military Justice recommended that sexual harrassment be a stand-alone offense. 

Making this federally recommended change here in California will allow commanders to send a strong message that leadership will not tolerate sexual harassment or assault within California’s military ranks. 

The U.S. military recognizes the importance of addressing sexual assault within its ranks, and so do the American people. A 2013 Pew survey found that 81% of Americans view sexual assault in the military as an extremely important or very important issue. SB 352 gives Californians an opportunity to engage on what is usually viewed as a federal issue. Californians can promote meaningful change by urging their representatives in Sacramento to vote “aye” on this critical piece of legislation.

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Eleni Kounalakis has previously written about climate action and California’s human values.

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