Sharp decrease of sexual assault in military, study finds

Washington CNN  — 

The percentage of military personnel who said they were victims of sexual assault dropped dramatically over the past two years, plunging by about 27%, the Pentagon said Friday.

But only roughly a third of those victims reported specific incidents to authorities, and officials concede that the percentage of victims who say they have experienced retaliation for reporting sex crimes has not significantly changed.

The study, which was conducted by the RAND corporation and sponsored by the Pentagon, indicated that an estimated 18,900 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel said they were victims of “unwanted sexual contact” in the 2014 fiscal year, compared to about 26,000 in 2012. In the surveys, the Pentagon uses the words “unwanted sexual contact” as an umbrella term covering any sexual offense, from inappropriate touching to rape.

Pentagon officials said that, even as the number of victims declined, more people were willing to report that they had been victimized. According to the report, the Pentagon received 6,131 reports of sexual assault in the 2014 fiscal year, an 11% increase from the year before and a 70% jump from the number of reports that were made in the 2012 fiscal year. Officials say the increase in reports of sexual abuse suggests rising confidence among personnel that their complaints would be taken seriously.

The decline in the number of people telling researchers that they had been sexually assaulted, which reverses years when they were rising steadily, is attributed to initiatives the military has undertaken prompted in large measure by congressional action.

“One reason the military is among the most highly respected institutions in the country is that we are a learning organization,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in releasing the latest report.

The Pentagon has been under intense pressure in recent years to curb what many say is an epidemic of sexual crimes in its ranks. New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has repeatedly pressed for legislation to remove responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes from the military chain of command and have them handled by an independent body. Military authorities objected to this proposal, asserting it would undermine their overall authority, and Gillibrand’s bill could not overcome a filibuster last year.

In a statement Friday, Gillibrand brushed aside any notion that the Pentagon had made significant progress in curbing sexual assaults.

“Contrary to mission accomplished, we are right back on 2010 levels for sexual assault,” she said. “This is a system where 19,000 men and women a year – an average of 52 new cases every day – face sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact. The military has pledged zero tolerance for over 20 years. There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed.”

While Gillibrand’s measure has failed to gain traction, a compromise bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, did pass. It included ending the statute of limitations for rape cases in the military, banning commanders from reversing jury verdicts in sexual assault and rape cases, making it a crime to retaliate against personnel who report sex crimes, and permitting victims to have their cases handled by civilian authorities in certain circumstances.

McCaskill said she was encouraged by the latest Pentagon report.

“One assault is still too many, and there’s still more work to be done – especially when it comes to guarding against retaliation,” she said in a statement. “But today’s report shows we’re on the right track as our sweeping reforms continue to take root.”

The study highlighted several intriguing difference in how male and female victims experience and react to sexual assault. As was the case in previous studies of sexual assault in the military, men made up the overwhelming majority of victims, primarily because the vast bulk of military personnel are men. According to the report, 10,400 male service members said they were sexually assaulted, compared to 8,500 women.

Still, men were much less likely than women to think of their assault as a sexual act, and more likely to describe it as “hazing” or an “attempt to humiliate them.” Men, however, were more likely than women to experience multiple sexual incidents during the previous year, and said that alcohol was less likely to be involved. Also, men were less likely to tell anyone about their assault or file a report against their abuser.