Care or Justice: Care Ethics and the Restricted Reporting Sexual Assault Policy in the US Military

The forthcoming article “Care or Justice: Care Ethics and the Restricted Reporting Sexual Assault Policy in the US Military” by Jennet Kirkpatrick and Carolyn Warner is summarized by the authors below.

How should institutions respond to sexual assault? Many institutions like universities and the military have adopted an “offender-centered approach” because they do not want to appear soft on crime. These institutions focus on finding and punishing the offender. For instance, they may encourage victim reporting, strengthen investigative and punitive processes, or pursue justice primarily through punishment.  

We argue that institutions should not always pursue justice by punishing sexual assault offenders. An offender-centered approach may not meet the victims’ need for care in contexts with little institutional trust. Victims are varied. According to numerous studies, many victims of sexual assault do not want to pursue formal legal action. If no other course of action is available, some never report the crime. As a result, these victims may not receive medical, psychological, or spiritual care after their assaults.  

To address this lack of care, we argue for a “victim-centered” approach that allows all victims to receive care regardless of whether they report the crime for investigation. To support our argument, we examine some of the US military’s “restricted reporting” policies which de-emphasize investigations and punishment and shift the focus from the perpetrator to the victim. Since 2005 the military has moved towards addressing the victim’s care to the extent of sometimes forgoing holding perpetrators accountable. Victims can confidentially report a crime, receive care, and decide later whether they want to have the military pursue the case. Recognizing that institutions must improve processes to increase victim confidence if they file a report that launches an investigation, we favor policy approaches allowing victim autonomy.  

We support a victim-centered approach through care ethics, a contextual method that assigns moral significance to providing care, receiving care, and dependent relationships in human life. The US military’s sexual assault policy aligns with the values of attentiveness and responsiveness, which are vital elements of care.  

Our research has implications for other institutions. For example, American universities, which generally require mandatory reporting according to Title XI legislation, and the Catholic Church, which covered up decades of sexual abuse, are likely candidates for a victim-centered approach. Both organizations may have a similar problem as the military: non-reporting because victims do not trust these institutions. Moreover, both possess the organizational resources to provide extensive care to all victims, even those who choose never to punish perpetrators by making a formal legal complaint.

About the Authors: Jennet Kirkpatrick is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and Carolyn Warner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Their research “Care or Justice: Care Ethics and the Restricted Reporting Sexual Assault Policy in the US Military” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.