Interpreting Data on Military Sexual Assault

Military sexual assault has been labeled an epidemic, a systemic crisis that violates the service and honor of military men and women who survive such a trauma, and it certainly is. Yet it’s hard to determine the true prevalence of these sexual crimes. The data tell their own story, yet multiple data sources tell a very different narrative. It’s also a challenge to look at the numbers without acknowledging the inhumanity of what they describe; that behind each case is a survivor whose loyalty and value in service has essentially been shattered.

To understand the scope of sexual violence in the military, let’s make sense of the statistics. The data on military sexual assault and harassment can be difficult to unravel.

Reports of Military Sexual Assault

Let’s start first with military reporting data, handled by the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPR).

SAPR’s report just released on May 1st shows in 2014 there were 6,131 reported sexual assaults.

1 in 4 were “restricted reports,” whereby the survivor reports the assault for purposes of receiving treatment but does not identify the perpetrator or pursue justice for the crime. So essentially the perpetrator is never censured, and continues to serve in the military in proximity of the survivor.

Commanders considered court-martial or other legal action for half of the unrestricted reported cases.

Of those 2,625 cases:

  • 628 were outright dismissed and 477 were relegated to non-sexual assault-related offenses.
  • Of the 1,550 perpetrators charged (38% of reported cases):
    • Commanders decided not to pursue court-martial charges for 552
      • 318 for nonjudicial punishment
      • 111 for an administrative discharge
      • 123 for other “adverse administrative actions”
    • Of the 998 cases pursued for court-martial charges:
      • 176 were dismissed by commanders prior to trial
      • 97 perpetrators were discharged in lieu of a court-martial
      • 137 remained pending at the end of fiscal 2014
      • 588 sexual assault cases went to trial
        • 26% of alleged perpetrators were acquitted of all charges
        • 434 were convicted
          • 117 received punishments other than jail time (to include punitive discharges, reduction in rank, fines, restrictions or hard labor)
          • 317 convicted and incarcerated on a sexual assault charge

Their reports exclude numbers of intimate partner sexual assaults and exclude civilian victim reports that involve a service member as the alleged offender. They also don’t include reports of sexual harassment. Essentially, their reports don’t tell the whole story.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has spearheaded legislative efforts to reform the military justice system’s response to sexual assault, just released a Snapshot Review of Sexual Assault Report Files at the four largest military bases in 2013. Her conclusions show that 32% of reports are by civilian women survivors, and 21% by civilian military spouse survivors, both uncounted in the SAPR reports.

The SAPR reports include the servicemember or servicemembers as either the survivor or the alleged suspect, yet while civilian survivors are not included in the report, civilian perpetrators are. They also strangely count reports of incidences occurring prior to the servicemember joining the military (135 in 2014). And finally, they carry over subject dispositions and investigations from the previous year that are still ongoing. So when you look at this data, keep in mind the complexities – it’s not just service member on service member crime, and it’s not the full account of sexual crimes in the military.

Prevalence of Military Sexual Assault

So along comes RAND.  In early 2014, SAPR asked the RAND National Defense Research Institute to conduct an independent assessment of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination in the military. This assessment was last conducted internally in 2012 by SAPR. Conducting an independent assessment is a pretty big deal for the Department of Defense (DoD).

Their sample also includes assaults by other servicemembers, civilians, spouses or others. So while SAPR doesn’t include intimate partner cases, RAND does.

RAND’s 2014 study included a survey of 560,000 U.S. servicemembers so they are able to draw a representative sample.

RAND found 20,000 servicemembers experienced at least one sexual assault which includes either rape, and attempted rape, and non-penetrative crimes during 2014.

In the civilian world, they say every 2 minutes (107 seconds), another American is sexually assaulted. With military sexual assault, 20,000 in 2014 equates to 1 every 30 minutes.

It represents 1 in 20 women experiencing at least one sexual assault in 2014, which is approximately 8,600 women. 1 in 100 men experienced at least one sexual assault in 2014, which is approximately 11,400 men.

So while the proportion of women experiencing sexual assault is higher, the actual numbers for men are estimated to be higher than women. There is the misconception that military sexual assault is a women’s issue, as only happening to military women by military men, and it certainly has often been treated as such by the media and military, and even by providers. This does a disservice to veteran men who’ve survived this trauma. Continuing this mislabeling makes it even more difficult for men to come forward and seek services.

Trend data show reports are on the rise, and the estimated gap between reporting and prevalence among servicemembers is at its narrowest since they began tracking sexual assaults in the military. But while assaults are estimated to be lower than 2012, they are the same as 2010. Further, conviction rates are lower, and prosecution rates remain unchanged from previous years.

Retaliation

On May 18th, Human Rights Watch released “Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military,” results of an 18-month investigation.

They found both men and women military personnel who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense. Retaliation against survivors cited in the report included threats, vandalism, harassment, poor work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, disciplinary action including discharge, and even criminal charges.

This adds to RAND’s report that 62% of women cited they were retaliated against after reporting, including 53% social retaliation, 32% professional retaliation, 35% adverse administrative action, and 11% punishment for infraction.

So how much progress is the military making?

76% are not reporting the assault. At most, 13% of men report their assaults, whereas at least 40% of women report.

Often, they may not report until they come to providers in the community, long after the assault has occurred and most often after they leave the military.

The VA’s Response: Military Sexual Trauma

So now we get to the VA’s estimation. They’ve adopted the term military sexual trauma (MST) which encompasses trauma from both sexual assault and sexual harassment, and its terminology is utilized by the VA to assess healthcare needs and disability claims. Yet it’s not a diagnosis, it’s an experience. The term describes the trauma from the act of sexual violence and harassment. They screen every veteran enrolled in VA healthcare for MST. It’s important to remember when you are defining the trauma that the VA and the military essentially does it differently, as we learned the military doesn’t use the term military sexual trauma, and sexual harassment is handled by a different office than sexual assault.

The VA found 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men have experienced MST.

These numbers group together sexual assault and harassment, and like RAND but unlike SAPR, include intimate partner cases.  These data only tell a story of those who have been able to seek VA health care; they cannot be used to make an estimate of the actual rates of sexual assault and harassment among all veterans.

Veterans can receive healthcare from the VA if they’ve experienced MST regardless of their discharge, yet they have a difficult time proving they’ve survived the trauma, especially if they didn’t report. Further, they cannot receive a service-connection and benefits from the VA for military sexual trauma alone; they can only receive service-connected disability benefits for a diagnosable mental health condition stemming from the sexual trauma. So the experience of sexual assault or harassment in the military isn’t enough to receive benefits, only the subsequent mental health conditions are.

One thing is for certain: while the data tell us very different stories, understanding the prevalence of military sexual assault is a crucial means of responding to the systemic crisis among the services, and providing much needed support for survivors.

To learn more about military sexual trauma, view our online training conducted on April 30th in partnership with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the California Department of Veterans Affairs.


Megan Zottarelli, Policy Analyst
Megan performs research and analysis of legislation, data, and issues related to veterans such as criminal justice, housing, employment, women’s health, etc. Megan helps to create formal summaries and recommendations to lawmakers and key stakeholders to increase access to services and support for veterans and their families. She is especially interested in criminal justice issues among veterans as well as treatment alternatives to incarceration.