Sailors assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) pose for a photo on a pier at BAE Systems Shipyard, April 29, 2022. Sailors stood in the shape a ribbon while holding teal paper to show support for sexual assault victims.

Sailors assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) pose for a photo on a pier at BAE Systems Shipyard, April 29, 2022. Sailors stood in the shape a ribbon while holding teal paper to show support for sexual assault victims. (Seaman Amber Speer/U.S. Navy)

Thousands fewer active-duty service members experienced sexual assaults or sexual harassment last year than in 2021, according to a Pentagon report released Thursday.

Pentagon officials said they believe some 6,800 fewer active-duty service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in fiscal year 2023 than in 2021 based on confidential surveys that the Defense Department sends active-duty troops every other year. The drop last year to about 29,000 sexual assaults — ranging from unwelcomed groping to rape — was statistically significant, Pentagon officials said.

It was the first recorded drop in unwanted sexual contacts in eight years.

Elizabeth Foster, the executive director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, which oversees sexual assault and suicide prevention efforts, said it was not possible to determine precisely what led to the drop in sexual assaults last year. She said she was “cautiously optimistic” the new report showed the Pentagon was finally on the right track in reducing sexual assault cases among troops.

“We have a lot more work to do,” Foster told reporters Thursday. “We need to continue to focus on driving down these numbers. We cannot take our eye off the ball. We must continue to focus on this if this change is going to be enduring.”

The Pentagon has worked for years to drive down the rates of sexual assaults and harassment within its ranks, a scourge that has long drawn the ire of Congress and, top Pentagon officials have conceded, likely had a negative impact on military recruiting.

Foster said new efforts implemented in the military in recent years after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commissioned an independent review of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention efforts in 2021 likely contributed. The Pentagon has invested heavily in implementing dozens of findings from that commission, nearly doubling its sexual assault prevention budget to more than $1 billion in 2023 and 2024.

The Pentagon has used that funding to stand up new offices to prosecute sexual assault cases outside of the traditional military chain of command and establish a professionalized prevention workforce. To date, the Defense Department has hired about 1,000 trained prevention specialists to serve at bases around the globe, Foster said. The department intends to employ about 2,500 prevention specialists by 2028, she said.

In addition to the lower number of sexual assaults experienced by service members, a higher percentage of those assaulted reported their cases to authorities, according to the report. The military services received 7,266 sexual assault reports from active-duty troops in 2023, which represented about 25% of those who confidentially reported unwanted sexual contact. That was an improvement from a rate of about 20% of military sexual assault victims reporting their cases in 2021, the last year the Pentagon gathered that data before 2023.

The report also found sexual harassment was down for male and female service members. The Pentagon determined about 24.7% of active-duty troops experienced sexual harassment in 2023, down from about 28.6% in 2021.

Foster said sexual harassment and sexual assault are often linked, with fewer cases of sexual assault occurring in commands where sexual harassment is not tolerated.

“For example, women who reported sexual harassment were 12 times more likely to also report unwanted sexual contact,” she said. “This pattern was even more pronounced for men who if they experienced sexual harassment were over 40 times more likely to also experience unwanted sexual contact. These findings underscore the central role of [command] climate in either increasing or decreasing the likelihood of harmful behaviors like sexual assault.”

Experiences of sexual assault dropped among all the military services from 2021 to 2023, according to the report. Female Marines were the most likely to experience sexual assault in 2023, with 10.8% experiencing unwanted sexual contact, which was down from 13.4% in 2021.

Female sailors’ unwanted sexual contact rates fell from 10.1% in 2021 to 7.5% in 2023. Female soldiers’ rates fell from 8.4% to 7.3%, and the rate among female airmen fell from 5.5% to 4.6%, according to the report.

Rates among male service members stayed nearly the same in 2023 as in 2021. Some 1.8% of male sailors, 1.5% of male Marines, 1.1% of male soldiers and 1% of male airmen experienced unwanted sexual contact last year, according to the report.

Sexual assaults at the military academies were also down in 2023, the Pentagon said. Reports of sexual assault fell from 155 in 2022 to 124 in the 2023 school year, Pentagon officials said.

Austin said in a statement Thursday that he was encouraged by the downtick in sexual assaults across the force but encouraged military leaders to keep the issue in the front of their minds.

“The only acceptable number of instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment in the U.S. military is zero,” Austin said. “We owe it to all our service members to get this right.”

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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