A new survey shows that one in three victims of sexual assault in the U.S. military now reports it, a record high.
But fear of retaliation and a culture of loyalty to their peers still prevents thousands from doing so, the same survey found.
The U.S. military received 6,172 reports of sexual assault in 2016, almost double the number of service members who reported it in 2012, according to the new Pentagon survey. It estimates there were 14,900 sexual assaults in 2016, the lowest number recorded since the survey was first conducted in 2006. In 2014, the report estimated there were 20,300 sexual assaults, and 26,000 in 2012.
6,172 U.S. military service members who reported sexual assault in 2016
Despite the overall downward trend, reports of sexual violence increased at two of the three national military academies in the 2016 fiscal year. At the United States Military Academy at West Point, reported sexual assaults rose from 17 to 26 last year, and at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis they rose from 25 to 28.
The opposite happened at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where reported sexual assaults dropped from 49 to 32 in the last academic year.
“Sexual assault in our military and military service academies is a scourge on our nation,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said at congressional hearing on sexual violence and harassment in the military on Tuesday. “Both women and men are victimized by sexual assault and harassment at the service academies, creating a toxic culture that follows these students straight into military leadership.”
The military is losing valuable future leaders when young victims are forced out of service academies or leave of their own volition following sexual harassment or assault, Speier said.
The funny thing is . . . most cadets believe that almost every single report is a lie. And that’s just the culture.
Ariana Bullard, sexual assault survivor who attended the U.S. Academy
While sexual assault occurs on all college campuses, survivors who testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday said that military service academies should be held to a higher standard but instead have a culture in which victims are discouraged from reporting it.
“Their loyalty to their peers, one of the key coping mechanisms many cadets rely on to get through the daily grind they experience as West Point cadets, creates this sense that reporting their assault and ruining the career of the offender is a tough sell,” said West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.
Annie Kendzior, one of four survivors of sexual assault at military service academies who testified on Tuesday, said she agreed that the culture was a big part of the problem.
Kendzior, who reported in 2011 that she had been sexually assaulted by two Naval Academy athletes in 2008, said that even seminars intended to educate female cadets about the issue carried a warning of what would happen if they reported it. In one such class, she told lawmakers, students were told the story of a woman who said she had been raped by a star football player and was found in the end to have lied about it.
“They finished that story with ‘Don’t be that girl.’ That’s what they told us in a sexual assault prevention class,” she said at the hearing.
“The funny thing is . . . most cadets believe that almost every single report is a lie. And that’s just the culture,” said Ariana Bullard, another survivor who testified. “Most cadets don’t believe in almost any woman that reports. Everyone jokes around about that.”
The name tags worn on cadets’ uniforms make those who report sexual assault easy targets for retaliation when word gets out, the former students said. Several survivors cited YikYak, a social media app that allows anyone within a five-mile radius to post public, anonymous messages, as being widely used to discredit women who speak out.
A system of investigating and prosecuting complaints of assault that leaves great power in the hands of one individual . . . motivated by career and institutional goals is not an effective mechanism for victims.
Stephanie Gross, former West Point cadet
More than half of the victims of sexual assault in the military said they were retaliated against for coming forward. According to the report, 58 percent of female service members on active duty, and 60 percent of men, “indicated experiencing a negative outcome they perceived as professional reprisal, ostracism, and/or maltreatment after reporting sexual assault” last year, both from their peers and their superiors.
“Every time I would initiate a report, a few days later I would receive a new punishment . . . from drug testing that was negative, to mental health evaluations that cleared me for duty (to) room inspections and misconduct-related insubordination,” said Stephanie Gross, a former West Point cadet who left the academy in 2015.
Gross had to have emergency pelvic surgery related to the assault and was told she might not be able to have children as a result. The investigators refused to take her clothing for testing or the blood alcohol level of her assailant on the night of the incident, she said.
She said she fell behind academically and was denied by her entire chain of command when she requested to speak about her situation.
“I do not blame West Point as an institution,” she said. “I blame a systematic failure of leadership, who relied on blind loyalty to make judgments about an individual they had never spoken to.”
For the first time in the male-dominated military, the estimated number of men who experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2016 – about 6,300 – was less than the number of women – about 8,600.
“While women are at higher risk for sexual assault, male service members traditionally account for the majority of the survey-estimated victims of sexual assault because the department is mostly comprised of men,” the report says.
Pentagon officials said that they were encouraged by the decline of cases, but said they “don’t confuse progress with success.”
The increase in reporting sexual violence is an “indicator of a continued trust in our response and support systems,” Elizabeth Van Winkle, the acting assistant secretary of defense for readiness, said at a Pentagon press conference on Monday.
“We must eliminate sexual assault in the military,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in a statement on the report. “Our department cannot tolerate actions that weaken unit cohesion, leadership, or training – the ingredients of combat effectiveness.”
There has been increased scrutiny of sexual harassment in the military after it was revealed that U.S. Marines had shared hundreds or thousands of nude photos of female service members in a private Facebook group. More than a dozen women, many of whom were on active duty, including officers, were identified by their full name, rank and military station in the posted photographs. In one case, a female corporal in uniform was followed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by a fellow Marine who took and posted photographs of her.
The Department of Defense has opened an investigation, and at least 30 active-duty service members could face punishment, ranging from administrative action to courts-martial.