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New Study Details The Risks Of Reporting Sexual Assault In The Military

U.S. military service members who report sexual assault continue to encounter professional and social retaliation, according to a Human Rights Watch report released this week that catalogs the experiences of victims and details the insufficient protection afforded to whistleblowers.

In an earlier study, 62 percent of women said they perceived at least one type of negative consequence as a result of speaking to military authorities about their cases. The Human Rights Watch report sheds light on what happens to those service members who report sexual assault.

The final report is based primarily on the accounts of 75 survivors of sexual assault who are either currently serving in the military or left in 2011 or later. (Experts on sexual violence don’t agree about whether the term “survivor” is preferable to “victim” — to recognize that, the Human Rights Watch report uses both words. This article will do the same.)

After reporting a sexual assault by a male soldier from another platoon in 2012, an Army serviceman described the negative experiences that shaped his perceptions of retaliation:

Within 6 months I had been physically attacked twice and verbally belittled by no less than six senior NCOs [noncommissioned officers] as well as my entire platoon of peers.

In another instance:

A lance corporal said her friends were told they would get “NJP’d” (non-judicial punishment) if they hung out with her. “I was alone all the way until the end.” She was discharged in June 2012 after being charged with “destruction of government property” for hurting herself after attempting suicide.

Those accounts illustrate the report’s rich qualitative information, but several findings, including the statistics it cites on retaliation, come from a report by the RAND Corp. The think tank was tasked by the Department of Defense (DOD) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2014 to conduct the largest-ever independent assessment of sexual assault in the military.

The DOD in turn had been urged by Congress to conduct a detailed investigation after a 2012 survey found that more than 26,000 active service members had experienced “unwanted sexual contact” in the prior year. Questions were raised about the methodology of that survey and its results — not least because it was unclear what was included in the category “unwanted sexual contact.” To address that, the RAND questionnaire adhered to the criminal definition of sexual assault.1

RAND invited almost half a million active service members to complete its survey and got a 30 percent response rate. The final data on the prevalence of sexual assault, and the experiences of those who report it, is based on the responses of 145,300 people.

RAND estimates that 20,300 service members, or 1.5 percent of the active military population, experienced at least one sexual assault in the 12 months before completing the survey (that estimate comes with 95 percent confidence, so the researchers think the actual figure is probably between 18,200 and 22,400 people). However, the rate of sexual assault varies considerably by gender: Fewer than 1 in 100 men in the military had been a victim of sexual assault in the previous year, compared with 1 in 20 women.

Although the differences were smaller, sexual assault rates also varied significantly by military branch. Personnel in the Marine Corps and Navy were found to be at significantly higher risk than those in the Air Force (analysis of the Coast Guard was done separately and found that the prevalence of sexual assault in the past year was similar that of the Air Force). In follow-up research, RAND tried to find out why those differences existed by controlling for various demographic characteristics. But they found that differences in sexual assault rates among military branches persisted.


The study also found a connection between sexual assault and sexual harassment. Women in the military who had been sexually harassed in the past year were 14 times more likely to also have been sexually assaulted in the same period compared with women who had not been sexually harassed. For men, that probability was 49 times higher. Speaking by phone this week, the lead author of the RAND report, senior behavioral scientist Andrew R. Morral, said  these “incredibly strong risk associations” were one of the most overlooked aspects of the research. The “dramatic correlations aren’t necessarily causal,” Morral said; however, he did say that harassment is an important part of risk, citing the fact that about a third of service members who were sexually assaulted said the offender had previously sexually harassed them.

The RAND research also shows how prevalent the negative experiences of those who report sexual assault can be. Overall, the researchers found that 62 percent of women who had reported “unwanted sexual contact” to military authorities perceived at least one form of adverse action in response (these percentages relate only to women because small sample sizes mean reliable estimates can’t be produced for men):

  • 32 percent said they perceived professional retaliation (such as being denied promotion or training);
  • 53 percent said they perceived social retaliation (such as being ignored by coworkers);
  • 35 percent said they experienced adverse administrative actions (such as being transferred to a different assignment);
  • and 11 percent said they experienced punishments for violations associated with the event (such as for underage drinking).

In recommendations to Congress, Human Rights Watch stressed the need to strengthen the Military Whistleblower Protection Act so military service members who are victims of sexual assault aren’t faced with the prospect of becoming victims of retaliation.


  1. The legal criteria for sexual assault are specified in Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). RAND describes its use of the term “sexual assault” as follows: “To be classified as having experienced a sexual assault, respondents must first have indicated that they experienced one of six anatomically specific unwanted behavioral events. If they indicated that one of these events occurred in the past year, they were then asked a series of additional questions designed to assess (a) if the event was intended for either a sexual purpose, to abuse, or to humiliate, as indicated in the UCMJ, and (b) if the offender used one of the coercion methods specified in the UCMJ as defining a criminal sex act.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.