Sexual assault in the United States military

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There is an ongoing problem with sexual assault in the United States military which has received extensive media coverage in the past several years. A 2011 report found that women in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than they are to be killed in combat.[1] At least 25% of U.S. military women report having been sexually assaulted, and up to 80% have been sexually harassed.[2] A 2012 Pentagon survey found that approximately 26,000 women and men were sexually assaulted. Of those, only 3,374 cases were reported. In 2013, a new Pentagon report found that 5,061 troops reported cases of assault. Some are optimistic that this increase in reports is indicative of victims "growing more comfortable in the system." Of these reported, however, only 484 cases went to trial, and only 376 resulted in convictions.[3] Another investigation found that one in five females in the United States Air Force reported having been sexually assaulted by service members.[4]

A survey for the Department of Defense conducted in 2014 found that in the past year 62 percent of active service members who reported sexual assault had experienced retaliation, including professional, social, and administrative actions or punishments.[5] In addition to retaliation against soldiers remaining in active service, many former service members who reported sexual assaults were forced to leave after being discharged for reasons such as having a "Personality Disorder" or misconduct related to the sexual assault such as fraternization or (prior to the end of Don't ask, don't tell) homosexuality, even if the homosexual conduct was not consensual.[6]

Incidents which have been publicized include the Tailhook scandal in 1991, the Aberdeen scandal in 1996 and the 2003 US Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal. In an attempt to deal with this problem, the Defense Department has issued the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Response policy. A provision in the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act required investigation and reporting regarding sexual harassment and assault at the United States military academies. A report was published in the New York Times magazine in March 2007 which surveyed women soldiers' experience in the Iraq War showing significant incidence of post traumatic stress syndrome resulting from the combination of combat stress and sexual assault.[7] 15% of female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have visited a Veterans Affairs (VA) facility have screened positive for military sexual trauma.[8]


Sexual assault is a crime defined as sexual contact upon a person or persons unwillingly, by means of force, physical threat, and abuse of authority which often leads to the victim or victims of the crime fearing to seek justice, and the fear is instilled by the same means in which the act was opposed on the person or persons. Sexual Assault includes: Rape; Indecent Assault; Attempts to commit these acts; Witnessing these acts and not reporting them.

The US Army Study Guide states:

"Sexual assault is a crime defined as intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual Assault includes: Rape; Non consensual Sodomy (oral or anal sex); Indecent Assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling); and Attempts to commit these acts."[9]

The 2005 Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies report states:

"Within the military community, the term sexual assault carries a more far-reaching meaning that encompasses everything from violent sexual acts such as rape, forcible sodomy, and assault with intent to commit rape or sodomy, to indecent assault. While indecent assault connotes violence, violence is not a prerequisite of the crime. Indecent assault can be a mere sexual touching that occurs without the consent of the person who is touched."[10]

Recent statistics[edit]

A 2011 report found that women in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than they are to be killed in combat.[1] At least 25% of U.S. military women have been sexually assaulted, and up to 80% have been sexually harassed.[2]

A substantial increase in reported sexual assaults was reported at the three U.S. military academies for the school year 2010 to 2011. It is possible that the increase resulted only from increased willingness to report incidents; increased reporting has been one of the goals of the Department of Defense.[11]

At a November 2011 press conference introducing legislation to combat sexual assault in the military Rep. Jackie Speier stated that, of the 13 percent of military sexual assault victims who reported the crimes committed against them, 90 percent were involuntarily discharged.[12][13]

In September 2013, Congress received the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2013 Statutory Enforcement Report.[14] The report found that during the 2012 fiscal year, there were 3,374 reports of sexual assault on military service members. 816 of these were not included in the commission report because they were confidential, restricted and not investigated. The report indicated that commanders are increasingly likely to refer sexual assault cases to court martial compared to the prior 4 years. In 15% of cases the accused perpetrator was permitted to resign or be discharge in lieu of court-martial.

The same commission report included the results of an anonymous survey of military personnel in which 23 percent of women and 4 percent of men reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact since enlistment. Based on this survey, the Department of Defense estimated that 26,000 service members experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, in the year 2012. 34 percent of women and 24 percent of men who reported these events in the anonymous survey stated that they had reported the event to authorities.

According to the USCCR report, a 2010 survey conducted by the Department of Defense found that 54 percent of women and 27 percent of men did not report because they feared retaliation; 47 percent of women and 20 percent of men did not report because they had heard other victims had a negative experience after reporting.

In a 2011, an alleged victim of sexual assault sued the sitting Secretary of Defense and the former Secretary of Defense in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia seeking money damages on the theory that their Department had failed to protect her from her assailant.[15] The Court dismissed the claim on grounds that without Congressional invitation, the courts have little authority to intervene in military affairs because under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, regulation of the military is the responsibility of Congress. Congress had not invited the courts to allow lawsuits against its military, and so the lawsuit was dismissed. Those who were offended by that case being dismissed criticized the court and claimed the decision had labeled sexual assault an "occupational hazard" in the military.[16][17] The decision of the court has no such language in it.[18]

Sexual assault against men[edit]

The Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. Of those cases, the Pentagon says, most involved attacks on men, mostly by other men. Recent statistics show that in terms of number of assaults, “the majority of the victims are men.”[19] It also states that although rare, women have previously aided men in sexually assaulting other women.[19] According to statistics released by the Department of Defense, in fiscal 2012, more men were victims of sexual abuse than women.[20] Turchik and Wilson found that “one problem that may be unique for men is confusion concerning sexual identity, masculinity, and sexual orientation after an assault, especially if the perpetrator is a man,” and that “homosexual victims may…feel that the assault was a punishment for being gay, whereas heterosexual victims may feel confused about sexuality and masculinity, especially if their body sexually responded during the assault.”[21]

Studies of male sexual assault victims have shown that they become more prone to emotional, physical, and social difficulties after being assaulted, which is comparable to women.[21] This shows that “[r]egardless of the victim’s gender…the consequences of sexual assault are both far reaching and acute.”[21] However, “U.S. military rape law applies only to female victims and male perpetrators,” which “promote[s] the rape myths that men cannot be raped, [and] that women cannot be perpetrators.”[21]

Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO)[edit]

4.1 Transition from the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services to SAPRO

In 2004, the Department of Defense created the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force, whose findings indicated the need for a more powerful and centralized organization to address the issue. This led to the formation of the Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, which eventually transitioned into the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).

“The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) now serves as the Department's single point of authority for sexual assault policy and provides oversight to ensure that each of the Service's programs complies with DoD policy. It quickly obtained approval of DoD Instruction 6495.02, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Procedures, making permanent all elements of the Department's sexual assault policy. In addition, it conducted a training conference for all SARCs. SAPRO, under the leadership of Major General Jeffrey J. Snow, continues to lead the Department's effort to transform into action its commitment to sexual assault prevention and response. This undertaking enjoys the support of leaders at all levels, and it will create a climate of confidence and trust where everyone is afforded respect and dignity.”

4.2 Mission of SAPRO

“The Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) serves as the single point of authority for program accountability and oversight, in order to enable military readiness and reduce -- with a goal to eliminate -- sexual assault from the military.”

4.3 Research and Reports

SAPRO oversees many studies, of which reports that are specifically directed towards sexual assault are only a part. The CDC, DMDC, USCCR, and White House are some of the sources that the SAPRO pulls its research and reports from. Under the Department of Defense, SAPRO is also responsible for releasing the Task Force Report on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, the most recent of which was published in 2009. The Task Force is charged with examining the issue of sexual assault in the military services and providing recommendations for legislation and policy-making based upon their findings.

The task force’s recommendations included expanding the reach and scope of SAPRO, increasing funding for sexual assault prevention and response programs, reducing variability in sexual assault prevention and response policies between the different branches of the military, raising standards for Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARC’s), and focusing sexual assault training more on prevention and quality than after-the-fact response. They also recommend improved victim advocacy – allowing for easier communication with victim advocates, better disclosure of victims’ rights, and access to attorneys – along with the formation of a database to track sexual assault information.[22]

Lawsuits against the Department of Defense[edit]

In February 2011, seventeen United States veterans filed Cioca v. Rumsfeld, a suit against the Pentagon and defense secretary Robert Gates and former secretary Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that they allowed a culture in the military where rape was unevenly reported and punished. In several of the plaintiffs' cases, the victim had been forced to work with the accused rapist after reporting them for sexual assault. Unit commanders often have heavy influence over military rape cases, and less than one in five cases are prosecuted.[23][24] The case was featured in an episode of The Passionate Eye and the documentary The Invisible War. It was dismissed in December 2011, appealed in April 2012, and the appeal was dismissed in Fourth Circuit court in July 2013.[25]

Clemencies, arrests and new attention in 2013[edit]

In 2013, two male officers convicted by courts martial of sexual assault were given clemency consisting of having their convictions set aside by respective three-star generals, Lieutenant Generals Craig Franklin of the Third Air Force and Susan Helms of the 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command and Joint Functional Component Command for Space, US Strategic Command.[26][27] In a six-page memorandum, Franklin outlined each piece of evidence in the case which caused him to conclude that there had not been proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt.[28] Helms provided her rationale in a Memorandum For Record, posted on the Air Force FOIA Website [29] In her 6-page memo, she outlined why the prosecution had not proven its case for sexual assault beyond a reasonable doubt. Her memo includes, verbatim, the specific standard of evidence directed by the military judge at trial, and her lawyer agreed with her assessment of the case.[30] However, as noted in her MFR, she did uphold Capt Herrera's conviction for a lesser sexual crime of Indecent Act, leading to his discharge from the Air Force.

The clemency cases combined in public attention in May 2013 with the arrest for sexual battery of an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel assigned to the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program. The Lieutenant Colonel was prosecuted by civilian authorities in Arlington, Virginia, and was unanimously acquitted by a civilian jury of even committing the lesser offense of assault and battery.[31] The issue of sexual assault in the military then received new, sharp attention from President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, among others.[32] Congressional concern over these events and the issue also brought Marines General Jim Amos, Air Force General Mark Welsh and the Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley to testify on the subject.[33]

Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey was quoted saying, "We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem.... That's a crisis." Secretary Hagel "ordered the retraining and recertification of U.S. military personnel whose job it is to work to prevent sexual assault and assist the victims". In Congress, the "Military Justice Improvement Act" was announced. The act "would mean that trained military prosecutors, not commanding officers, would decide whether sexual assault cases should go to trial, according to a group of at least 16 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives behind the legislation. It also would mean commanders cannot set aside the conviction of anyone who has been found guilty of sexual assault or downgrade a conviction to a lesser offense", per Reuters.[34] Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Susan Collins (R-ME) were amongst the sponsoring congress members[35] and Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and others reportedly joined as cosponsors.[36] Co-sponsor Representative Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ-9), who once worked as a rape crisis counselor, said, "It is clear that something is not working."[34]

Related legislation[edit]

On June 26, 2013 Rep. Dina Titus (D, NV-1) introduced into the United States House of Representatives the bill To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide veterans with counseling and treatment for sexual trauma that occurred during inactive duty training (H.R. 2527; 113th Congress). The bill would extend a VA program of counseling and care and services for veterans for military sexual trauma that occurred during active duty or active duty for training to include veterans who experienced such trauma during inactive duty training.[37] The bill would alter current law, which allows access to such counseling only to active duty members of the military, so that members of the Reserves and National Guard would be eligible.[38] The Wounded Warrior Project strongly supported the bill, but pointed out a number of additional related challenges and problems that needed to be solved to improve the treatment of MST related conditions in veterans.[39] The WWP did a study of its alumni and found that "almost half of the respondents indicated accessing care through VA for MST related conditions was 'Very difficult'. And of those who did not seek VA care, 41% did not know they were eligible for such care."[39] The WWP also testified that in addition to expanding access to MST care, the VA needed to improve care itself, because veterans report "inadequate screening, providers who were either insensitive or lacked needed expertise, and facilities ill-equipped to appropriately care for MST survivors."[39]

See also[edit]

Individual incidents towards civilians
Individual incidents towards female serving members


 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Department of Defense document "Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment & Violence at the Military Service Academies" (retrieved on 10 March 2011).


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  6. ^ "Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors". Human Rights Watch. May 19, 2016. Retrieved 10 September 2016. Many were discharged with a less than honorable discharge (also known as “bad paper”) for misconduct related to their sexual assaults, which can exclude veterans from virtually all benefits. In the course of reporting a sexual assault, the victim may reveal conduct that is prohibited under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (such as adultery or fraternization), which may lead to a discharge. Prior to 2011, male service members in particular risked being thrown out of service for homosexual conduct for reporting rape by a male, even though the conduct was non-consensual. Symptoms of trauma may also impact performance and lead to a misconduct discharge. 
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    Benkof, David (27 August 2014). "Same-Sex Rape In The Military On The Rise". The Daily Caller. Retrieved 28 August 2014. An article in the September issue of GQ discuses the recent increase in same-sex rape in the military. It reports, with many examples, that most victims of sexual assault in the armed forces are men, and that their rapists are nearly always other men. 
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