Biden signs order criminalizing military sexual harassment

President Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order making sexual harassment a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and enhancing the military’s response to domestic violence and wrongful distribution of intimate visual images.

The order follows the sweeping military justice reforms included in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that for first time criminalizes the offense under the code.

“The Biden-Harris administration thanks Congress for the bipartisan commitment to pass monumental reforms to our military justice system,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “We also look forward to continuing to work with Congress to support the safety and dignity of our service members.”

The White House announced on Twitter at 4:18 p.m. that the president signed the order.

Among the military justice reforms included in the $768 million NDAA, Biden had 30 days from its enactment to codify sexual harassment as a standalone crime under the UCMJ and to amend the Manual for Courts-Martial to include the offense.

Further, it established that complaints of sexual harassment would be handled by independent investigators outside of the military chain of command.

That military service reported receiving 1,781 sexual harassment complaints in fiscal 2020, according to a Pentagon report released in May, including 984 formal complaints, 765 informal complaints and 32 anonymous complaints.

Of the sexual harassment complaints, a total of 331 complaints involved nonconsensual distribution of private sexual images.

The wrongful broadcast or distribution of “intimate visual images” is currently a crime under the UCMJ. However, the code doesn’t explicitly outline sentencing parameters for the crime outside of saying that the offense shall be “punished as a court-martial may direct.” 

Psaki said that the “historic addition” of sexual harassment honors the memory of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was killed in 2020 by after being allegedly hit in the head inside an armory room at Fort Hood by Spec. Aaron Robinson.

A report released in April found that Guillén had been sexually harassed multiple times before her slaying, though not by Robinson.

Psaki also said the order follows through on several recommendations from the Independent Review Commission the Pentagon established to examine the military’s response to sexual assault.

That report recommended an overhaul of how the military handles domestic violence and the nonconsensual distribution of private images.

Updated at 4:39 p.m.