Official reports of sexual assault climb, even as estimated number of attacks declines

The cover of the Department of Defense's report to the president on sex assault prevention and response.


By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 4, 2014

Nearly 20,000 troops were sexually assaulted last year, according to estimates based on an anonymous survey released Thursday, a decrease from 26,000 in 2012, when the Pentagon last conducted the survey, but virtually identical to the 2010 estimate.

At the same time, the percentage of victims who reported crimes increased from 11 percent in 2012 to 24 percent in 2014, according to the report.

While the Department of Defense believes the results show “substantive, comprehensive progress” in combating the crime, critics of the military justice system called the numbers “appalling.”

RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of sexual assault in the military

Every two years, the military conducts an anonymous workplace- and gender-relations survey of thousands of active and reserve troops, asking how many have been sexually assaulted in the previous year. The percentage of respondents who say they have experienced unwanted sexual contact is then applied to the total number of troops in the military, creating the estimate of how many troops have been sexually assaulted.

Additionally, the Pentagon releases data each spring about the sexual assaults that have been reported to law enforcement and commanders.

There is always a significant gap between the number of sexual assaults estimated to have occurred and the number reported. In 2012, when 26,000 troops were estimated to have been sexually assaulted based on the anonymous survey results, just 3,374 had reported.

The number of reported sexual assaults increased dramatically to 5,061 — up 50 percent — in 2013, then increased by 8 percent in 2014.

Previous anonymous surveys have been administered by the DOD, but this year’s survey was conducted by the RAND Corp., which used the formerly used questionnaire for a random sample of troops, and a redesigned survey for other troops. The RAND study estimated about 20,000 victims of sexual assault, while the estimate based on the previous methodology was 19,000.

RAND experts said the survey was designed to address criticism of the DOD’s earlier surveys. Among other things, researchers said, it utilized a larger sample size, simplified wording of key questions and made a distinction in its measures between instances the military classifies as crimes and those classified as workplace equal opportunity violations. 

The spiking number of sexual assaults grabbed the attention of several lawmakers, who in the past two years have been debating how best to deal with the crimes and prevent more in the future.

Several reforms championed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took effect a year ago, and after seeing initial accounts of the report, she issued a statement saying the combination of increased reporting and decreased assaults was “exactly the combination we’re looking for.”

“I’m sure there’s more work to do, and I’m anxious to hear how victims feel about the services and support offered to them when they report an assault,” McCaskill said.

But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who this week renewed a push to remove the authority to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes from the victim’s chain of command, said some of the numbers should be a “screaming red flag.”

“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,” she said. Instead, 62 percent of people who said they reported a sexual assault also said they were retaliated against for speaking up, Gillibrand said — the same number as last year.

Gillibrand said the numbers illustrate why the number of victims who report crimes remains low, and called the prevalence of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact in the military “appalling.”

There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed,” she said. “Enough is enough. Last December the president said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work and it is clear they have failed in their mission.”

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, said that while much has been made about the number of sexual assaults decreasing, 20,000 assaults “is nothing to cheer about.”

The fact that the number is virtually identical to the 2010 estimates shows that very little improvement has been made in the past four years, she said.

The Pentagon made multiple references in the report to the fact that commanders care about their troops and care about stopping sexual violence, Bhagwati said, but “caring does not fix the problem.”

What would help is policy reform, she said, and taking the prosecution of the crimes out of the victims’ and accused assailants’ chain of command.

“Clearly victims don’t feel safe … retaliation is deeply ingrained in the culture of the military” she said. “This is a straightforward fix that military leaders don’t have the courage to implement.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did order several new training and assault prevention measures in a memo that accompanied the report.

A new installation-centered study will “customize” sexual assault prevention measures at a number of bases to determine which policies and procedures are most effective, Hagel said.

“This effort will identify installation and community risk factors for sexual assault and develop associated actions leadership can take to mitigate sexual violence,” he wrote in the memo. A plan for the study is due on January 30.

Hagel also ordered “first line” supervisors throughout DOD to undergo training in the responsibility of bosses in sexual assault prevention and response programs. The new training applies to all junior officers, junior enlisted supervisors and civilian employees that supervise military members.

Hagel also ordered new procedures for installation commanders to prevent reprisals and retaliation for reports of sexual assault, and ordered service branch secretaries to publicize the report findings “in an interactive manner.”

Hagel said the report showed DOD is having some success in fighting sexual assault, but that more effort is needed.

“While our report to the president demonstrates progress, as we all know, our work is not complete,” he wrote in the memo. “We must remain persistent and relentless in our efforts to eradicate sexual assault from the military.”

For the complete report, a fact sheet and the Defense secretary’s recommendations, go to stripes.com.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll (@ChrisCarroll_) contributed to this report.

Twitter: @jhlad

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.