We have seen it again and again. Sexual assault victims struggle for years and even decades before mustering the courage to come forward, only to be met with the same skeptical questions: Where’s the police report? Why didn’t you tell anyone?
Martha McSally has delivered the answer.
The freshman Republican senator from Arizona, appointed in December to fill the seat of the late John McCain, is a retired Air Force colonel who distinguished herself as the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat. She made the stunning revelation Wednesday that even as she was serving her country with distinction, she carried a secret: that she had been raped by a superior officer.
“Unlike so many brave survivors, I didn’t report being sexually assaulted. Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time. I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless,” McSally said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.
McSally thought she was strong, and she was. She was a warrior. But not even the credibility and trust McSally gained as the first female commander of a fighter squadron, not even the courage it took to become a leader of the initial air campaign in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, was enough.
For so many sexual-abuse survivors, the presumption has been that if anything truly terrible had happened — that if an accuser did not have some ulterior motive, or had not been a willing participant — she would have spoken up and gone to the authorities immediately.
We have seen this kind of mockery even from the president of the United States.
When Christine Blasey Ford claimed that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M Kavanaugh had attacked her in high school, President Trump bullied her from his Twitter pulpit: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
This was not the first time McSally spoke of her experiences with sexual abuse. During her unsuccessful campaign last year to win election to Arizona’s other Senate seat, McSally revealed to the Wall Street Journal that a high school track coach pressured her into having sex with him when she was 17. “It took a while for me to come to a place where I understood what the hell I had been through,” McSally said. “At the time, I was so afraid. I now understand — like many girls and boys who are abused by people in authority over them — there’s a lot of fear and manipulation and shame.”
As a military officer, McSally faced a whole separate set of institutional and cultural challenges. “During my 26 years in uniform, I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual-assault prevention, investigation and adjudication," McSally said.
Still, there came a time when McSally, who was in the Air Force from 1988 to 2010, attempted to share at least the broad outlines of her experiences, as she saw others come forward and heard promises of reform from military leaders. But she quickly realized that nothing had changed.
”I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled," she said. “I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again.”
What McSally has done took guts, possibly as much bravery as anything she did while in uniform. With her military record — and the power she now holds as a senator — McSally knows that she almost certainly will be believed.
But many others are not, even as the #MeToo movement nears the halfway mark of its second year.
Nearly 7,000 sexual assaults were reported in the U.S. military during the past fiscal year, an increase of 10 percent, which suggests more service members are feeling bold enough to step forward when they are abused. But well over half of those who speak up claim they still face retaliation within their units, according to 2017 surveys.
All of which helps explain why even the bravest victims of sexual abuse may choose silence. There are a lot of Martha McSallys out there, waiting to be heard.