Military, Civilian Prosecutors Start to Define Alcohol as 'Weapon' in Sexual Assault

By McCarton Ackerman 02/05/15

Prosecutors have found that alcohol has been involved in more sexual assault cases than actual weapons.

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Both military and civilian prosecutors are taking a groundbreaking approach to the use of alcohol in sexual assault cases by defining it as a weapon.

Nearly half of the 6,000 sexual assault cases across the Department of Defense last year reportedly involved alcohol to some extent, while a 2013 Pentagon report found the number to be closer to one-third. The military also referred to alcohol as a weapon in a sexual assault prevention guidance packet for commanders, these same comments were also repeated last May by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Lt. Col. Kirstin Reimann, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, also said via email that commanders are required to "work with community partners on responsible alcohol sales practices and bystander intervention training for alcohol servers."

The military is eager to review its sexual policies and last week required Air Force Academy leaders to attend a presentation on sexual assault and the academy’s new stance on alcohol’s role in these attacks.

"The issues of binge drinking and sexual assault are complex, societal challenges that all colleges and universities across the nation struggle with. The academy, like all other college campuses, is not immune to these national problems, and we remain committed to addressing and eliminating both sexual harassment and sexual assault," said Air Force academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brus Vidal in an email to the Colorado Gazette. “The academy remains firm in its commitment to vigorously combat sexual assaults and harassment through the very best awareness and prevention training and base-wide initiatives.”

But, because cadets receive a weekly paycheck and have most of their expenses covered, they often have the money to drink recklessly, if they choose. Maj. Gen. Irv Halter, former vice superintendent at the academy, said it’s up to military leaders to keep control of their men.

"We have a culture that thinks getting high or drunk is the ultimate use of the weekend; you can quote me on that," he said. "I shake my head because it seems to be an intractable problem," Halter said. "We as a society need to figure out how to tell people that going and getting silly drunk on the weekend is not in your best interest."

Katharina Booth, chief trial deputy and chief of the Boulder District Attorney's Office sexual assault unit, believes alcohol is used in more of these cases than guns, threats, or fists. But because of “a ton of misplaced self-blame,” many victims often don’t report the attacks against them. However, the Pentagon reported last month that 24% of military sexual assault victims reported their crimes last year, up from 11% a year earlier.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.