The number of official reports of sexual assault among members of the U.S. military jumped by 50 percent this year, according to preliminary data obtained by the Associated Press. Officials emphasize that doesn’t necessarily mean the incidences of sexual assault increased; rather, they believe the data signals that more victims are now reporting the crime.
In recent years, the number of official rape reports has significantly underestimated the actual rate of sexual assault in the military. For instance, 3,374 rape reports were filed during the fiscal year that ended in September 2012. But a survey conducted among service members estimated that closer to 26,000 sexual assaults had actually occurred during that time period — a figure that may still be too low.
There may be slow progress in this area, however. According to the AP, more than 5,000 sexual assault reports were filed during the 2013 fiscal year. Officials don’t believe the number of sexual assaults in the armed forces dramatically rose in 2013, based on surveys and focus groups with survey members, so the jump in reports likely indicates that more of these crimes are making it into the system.
The push to combat sexual assault in the military has gained bipartisan momentum over the past year. Victims have repeatedly alleged that they don’t feel comfortable coming forward because their superiors don’t take rape seriously, sometimes even blaming them for the crimes perpetrated against them. Many of them say that the strict hierarchy in the armed forces makes them too afraid to report sexual assault to ranking officers. The controversy has spurred some serious policy changes — just last week, President Obama signed a new defense bill that includes provisions to ensure victims aren’t punished for reporting sexual assaults — and military leadership is cautiously optimistic that national attention is helping the culture improve.
“We’re still not where we want things to be,” Col. Alan R. Metzler, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office, told the AP. “But we think all of this is having an effect.”
Ensuring that victims feel comfortable enough to report their sexual assault is an important first step in creating an culture in which rape is taken seriously, but it’s just one part of the overall strategy to combat rape culture in the military. Officials are also working to prevent sexual crimes from occurring in the first place, largely by implementing more sexual assault awareness and bystander invention programs.
When Obama signed the new defense bill on the day after Christmas, he indicated that he would be watching closely to ensure that the Pentagon eventually brings down the number of overall assaults. “If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms,” Obama warned.