6 Reasons Why The Military Sexual Assault Problem Is Worse Than You Think


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An annual report published this spring by the Department of Defense revealed the pervasive sexual assault problem in our armed forces. The Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2012, a 34 percent increase from 2010.

While the numbers are staggering, many have attacked the quality of the data in an effort to downplay the problem at hand and resist efforts to curtail incidents of sexual assault. Pentagon JAG Captain Lindsay Rodman recently called the 26,000 figure “bad math,” and suggested the reported number of sexual assaults is exaggerated. Others have claimed that sexual harassment is included in the 26,000 sexual assault victim estimate, thereby diluting the data and minimalizing the problem.

However, a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress highlights the inaccuracies in Rodman’s claims and in similar assertions by others. In fact, the number of sexual assaults may even be greater than the 26,000 estimate. Here are six reasons why the military sexual assault problem is worse than you think:

  • The data do distinguish between sexual harassment and sexual assault. The survey clearly delineates two different behaviors: “unwanted sexual contact” and “unwanted gender-related behavior.” The 26,000 number refers only to incidents of unwanted sexual contact and omits behaviors like “sideways glances.”
  • Some sexual misconduct that is not counted as sexual assault is still serious. For example, not included in the 26,000-person figure would be the 8 percent of surveyed women who were victims of “quid pro quo” sexual coercion, where a service member uses threats of job security or career advancement to perpetrate sexual harassment or assault.
  • Crimes committed at service academies are counted separately. Sexual assaults at service academies are reported and handled separately from those incidents that occur across the rest of the armed forces. The prevalence of sexual assault at service academies is on par – and sometimes higher – than in the military overall.
  • The data do not capture the number of perpetrators in the military. One in four female victims who reported sexual assault indicated that multiple perpetrators were involved in the crime, so the number of perpetrators in the military may be greater than the number of incidents of sexual assault.
  • The data do not capture repeat sexual abuse. Service members who were surveyed were only asked about the most serious incident that occurred in the previous twelve months. Repeat instances of unwanted sexual contact are not included in the 26,000-person figure.
  • The data do not count crimes perpetrated against civilians, including civilian intimate partners or minors on military bases. Cases of domestic violence and spousal abuse are instead referred to the military’s Family Advocacy Program, an entirely separate entity from the military justice system. These incidents are left out of the Pentagon’s annual review of sexual assault and harassment.
  • As military leaders search for solutions and members of Congress lay out competing visions to tackle the issue, we must enter the debate with a clear consensus on the Pentagon’s data and an understanding of the widespread nature of sexual assault in our armed forces. Denying these basic facts and the scope of this problem is a disservice to military survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and in turn, a disservice to all those who serve our country.

    Samuel Dunkle is an intern with Executive Affairs at the Center for American Progress