Here’s What the U.S. Millitary’s Sexual Assault Problem Looks Like

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The military’s sexual assault problem is not gone, and its own reports show conflicting numbers on the prevalence of incidents. The Pentagon released a report on sexual assault in the military promoting the fact that, in an anonymous survey, it saw a 25% drop in the past year in the numbers of service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact.

The decrease is significant — with 19,000 saying that had experience unwanted sexual contact in comparison to 26,000 in 2012. “We believe that our efforts to prevent sexual assault are beginning to have an impact,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the report. “Compared to 2012, the DoD-wide survey we are releasing today shows that the prevalence of sexual assault in the military over the past year has decreased by about 25 percent.” The survey data suggests the amount of active duty women who experienced unwanted sexual contact declined from 6.1% in 2012 to 4.3% in 2014. The rate remained about the same for men, moving from 1.2% in 2013 to 0.9% in 2014.

But there was still an increase in reports of sexual assault made. In 2014, 5,983 incidents of sexual assault were reported, up 66% from 2012, when 3,604 were reported. This increase, Hagel said, is good news. “Two years ago, we estimated about one in 10 sexual assaults were being reported,” he said. “Today, it’s one in four.” Last year, the military reporting a 50% increase of sexual assault from the previous year.

On the one hand this increase reflects a change in culture, in which victims feel more comfortable reporting their assaults. “Increased reporting signals not only growing trust of command and confidence in the response system, but serves as the gateway to provide more victims with support and to hold a greater number of offenders appropriately accountable,” the report says. But there are still so many crimes going unreported, and 62% of those who reported felt they face some sort of retaliation. 

The survey was conducted by an independent pollster, Rand Corp., which sent email invites to 200,000 service women and more than 300,000 men. Of the 560,000 emails, 170,000 active duty troops answered the survey — a response rate of about 30%, up from 20% in 2012. Of the 19,000 overall people who said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact, about 10,500 were men and 8,500 women. Women especially are still feeling retaliation in response to reported sexual assault.

“For a year now we have heard how the reforms in the previous defense bill were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), according to the Washington Times. “It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62 percent of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against — nearly two-thirds — the exact same number as last year.” Gillibrand is pushing to change the way sexual assault cases are prosecuted in the military — instead of allowing military commanders to prosecute, rather move that power to a military lawyer outside the chain of command in order to diminish retaliation.

When announcing the report, Hagel emphasized that the issue of sexual assault has been taken seriously and targeted for the past year and a half. He said stopping sexual assault has been one of his highest priorities: “I’ve directed over 28 new initiatives over the last year to strengthen how we prevent and respond to sexual assault in the military,” he said.

These initiatives include how the military supports sexual assault survivors, education and training, and how the military itself accountable for these incidents. “We recommended significant military justice systems reforms that have since been codified into law,” Hagel said, “with the help of Congress, with the help of the White House, and outside groups that have given us much counsel on this and support and help.”

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