Servicemen are far less likely to report sexual assaults in the military than their female colleagues, according to a report released this week.
According to a Government Accountability Report, 1,180 men and 4,104 women reported a sexual assault to the Department of Defense (DoD), but because men are by far a larger population in the American military, most of the victims of sexual assault are men. Therefore, men are believed to be drastically under-reporting their assaults compared with their female colleagues.
While the military is starting to see an increase in sexual assault reporting generally, it seems that there’s a greater increase among women than there is among men. “GAO’s analysis of sexual assault prevalence estimates using the results of a study conducted for DOD by the RAND Corporation shows that at most 13 percent of males reported their assaults, whereas at least 40 percent of females reported,” the report said.
They also evaluated other reporting data. “[O]fficials determined that in each of fiscal years 2010 and 2012, of those activeduty males estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact, about 3 percent reported a sexual assault to DOD. At the same time, officials found that for fiscal year 2010, of those active-duty women estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact, about 26 percent reported a sexual assault to DOD, and for fiscal year 2012, the figure was 20 percent.”
Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for better military sexual assault policies for victims, said the report revealed how little the DOD had done to address the issue. “The report released by the GAO reveals a stunning refusal of DoD to acknowledge the true scope and impact of military sexual assault and to seriously address the problem. DoD’s own data has shown that men account for nearly half of all victims of sexual assault in the military, and yet no meaningful steps have been taken to understand and confront this reality,” they said. “This is not only willful ignorance towards the problem itself, but is a denial of the humanity and dignity of so many male survivors, who are suffering in silence and without access to the vital services and support they need. The DoD has a duty to all survivors of this horrific crime, and this report shows that they have utterly failed our service members.”
The GAO report points to a myriad of reasons why this might be the case. Overall, the military culture emphasizes masculinity and self-reliance, and many male victims of sexual assault may experience shame and embarrassment that they experienced an assault, according to many care providers at military installations. Male victims may also experience stigma from their colleagues if they do report an assault.
“Providers also told us that, following an assault, heterosexual male victims may face questions about their sexuality. For example, providers stated that male victims may misunderstand physical responses that they experienced during the assault, and in some cases may conclude that they subconsciously ‘wanted it’ and ‘invited’ the attack,” the report said. Other research that the report points to finds questioning one’s masculinity or sexuality are a common among all male victims of sexual assault, but that these particular dynamics may be amplified in the military.
“Military culture helps foster standards of behavior that, depending on the leadership, can cultivate an environment that encourages or deters behavior that can lead to sexual assault and whether a victim chooses to report an incident, according to DOD reports and strategies and officials with whom we spoke. The same evidence suggests that military culture and its high regard for masculine traits such as strength and self-reliance can be a particularly potent influence on how male servicemembers respond to issues such as sexual assault,” the report said. “This is not only willful ignorance towards the problem itself, but is a denial of the humanity and dignity of so many male survivors, who are suffering in silence and without access to the vital services and support they need. The DoD has a duty to all survivors of this horrific crime, and this report shows that they have utterly failed our service members.”
The report further evaluated some of the sexual assault prevention measures that have been put into place. Many of the policies targeted at sexual assault victims are “gender neutral” the report said, and don’t tend to address the specific concerns of male victims. They also evaluated sexual assault prevention campaigns in the various branches, and found that most implied that women tended to be the victims of sexual assault, and they were at best neutral about who could be a victim. Many of the ads targeting men, such as the one from the Air Force pictured below on the bottom left, encouraged men to be the ones to step in to prevent other men from assaulting women.
Even the much-hailed Oscar-nominated documentary Invisible War featured a number of female victims and just one male victim. The documentary has been cited a number of times by senators and other officials working on military sexual assault prevention, and is largely credited with raising awareness about military sexual assault issues generally.
One of the key things the report found has been found to be an issue for women reporting sexual assault as well. The report found that “the majority of the males we spoke with who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military said that they did not trust their chains of command when it came to reporting a sexual assault.”
This is something that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has been working to change for the past few years. Her proposal seeks to remove the reporting requirement from the chain of command and allow independent investigators to investigate sexual assaults. Despite gaining Republican allies, she fell five votes short of the 60 needed to advance the bill. She also faces opposition to the bill from within her own party on this change to military structure, like from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), with whom she as teamed up on a campus sexual assault prevention bill.
Gillibrand recently renewed her effort, pointing to a Defense Department report that found 62 percent of those who reported an assault faced retaliation. She faces an uphill battle, since she’s lost the support of some previous allies who didn’t make it through re-election last year, though she did gain support from some freshman Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (CO) and Joni Ernst (IA).
Gillibrand did not respond to a request for comment on this particular bill, but during a hearing on military sexual assault last year, she said, “There is zero doubt that sexual violence is occurring at an unacceptable rate in our military. Too often, our service men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives — not in the theater of war, but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters.”
Protect Our Defenders supports Gillibrand’s proposed change, and said in their statement today, “Until there is a professional, impartial military justice system, our service members will continue to be at risk.”