Latest Military Sexual Assault Report Shows ‘Tragic’ Rise in Cases, Pentagon Officials Say

THE PENTAGON — One in 10 female sailors experienced unwanted sexual contact in Fiscal Year 2021, one of the worst rates among the service branches, according to the Department of Defense’s annual Sexual Assault and Prevention Report released on Thursday. That’s an increase from 7.5 percent of female sailors in FY 2018, according to slides […]

Sailors underway on May 24, 2022. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON — One in 10 female sailors experienced unwanted sexual contact in Fiscal Year 2021, one of the worst rates among the service branches, according to the Department of Defense’s annual Sexual Assault and Prevention Report released on Thursday.

That’s an increase from 7.5 percent of female sailors in FY 2018, according to slides from a DoD briefing Thursday afternoon. FY 2021 saw 2.1 percent of male sailors experiencing unwanted sexual contact, the worst among the military branches, not including the Coast Guard, which is not part of the report. The 2.1 percent is an increase from 1 percent in FY 2018, the last year the survey was conducted.

Overall, 8.4 percent of female service members and 1.5 percent of male service members experienced unwanted sexual contact, according to the report.

The numbers across the military branches point to the problem getting worse. Sexual assault rates are up, the percentage of people reporting sexual assault is down and trust in the military when it comes to protecting victims is at an all time low.

The Marine Corps had the highest percentage of women experiencing unwanted sexual contact, with 13.4 percent. The Navy’s rate was the second highest.

It was the worst year since 2006 in terms of prevalence rates for women, said Beth Foster, executive director for Force Resiliency, during the press briefing. It was the second worst year for men.

“These numbers are tragic and extremely disappointing,” Foster said. “On an individual level, it is devastating to conceptualize that these numbers mean that over 35,000 service members’ lives and careers were irrevocably changed by these crimes. These events not only have an impact at an individual level, but they also degrade our readiness and ability for the department to conduct our mission,” she said.

Across all the services, 8.4 percent of women and 1.5 percent of men said in a survey that they experienced unwanted sexual contact, one way the DoD is attempting to measure just how common sexual assault is among service members.

For FY 2021, the DoD used a new survey, which was easier to use than older versions. Due to the change in methods, the SAPR office could not do an apples-to-apples comparison of the previous year in a way that would be statistically significant, said Ashlea Klahr, the director of the Health and Research Office at the Office of Peoples Analytics.

Even with the change in methods, the DoD still set a new “high water mark” for sexual assault prevalence, said Nathan Galbreath, SAPRO acting director.

The second metric used by the DoD is the number of reports, Galbreath said. In FY 2021, the DoD received the highest number of sexual assault reports, but the percentage of reports compared to the prevalence rate decreased. Instead of one in three service members reporting sexual assault, it was one in five this past year.

In the Navy specifically, there were 1,883 reports of sexual assault, an increase of 9.2 percent from FY 2020, according to the report.

There were 1,329 Navy unrestricted reports, which are the reports that can be investigated, of sexual assault in the past fiscal year. The Navy received 554 restricted reports, which are cases where the victim is given resources but does not move the case beyond the report.

Trust in the military support systems for sexual assault is at at ten year low. SAPR Report Graph

“The findings of the Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for Fiscal Year 2021 underscore that the crimes of sexual assault and sexual harassment are pervasive and remain persistent and corrosive problems,” Navy spokesperson Lt. Alyson Hands said. “We can and must do better to stop sexual assault and sexual harassment behaviors before they begin.”

A survey of sexual assault prevalence in the military found that trust in the services to handle sexual assault sharply declined among female service members.

Less than 40 percent of female service members trusted the military to treat them with respect and dignity. Sixty percent of female service members also did not trust that the military would ensure their safety after reporting a sexual assault.

The least amount of trust was in the military’s ability to keep their privacy protected. Only 34 percent of women believed the service would protect their privacy. This can prevent someone from wanting to go forward with a legal case, said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, the president of military sexual trauma advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

He cited cell phones as an example. An investigation might require a phone download, which could ultimately result in the defense having access to a victim’s text messages.

“And the average person, I don’t care how straight and narrow you are, do not want people reading your private texts and everything else,” he said.

Men, on the other hand, trusted the military much more with sexual assault, with 64 percent saying they believed the military would ensure their safety and 58 percent saying they thought the military would protect their privacy.

While sexual assault is more common for women, it also affects men, who tend to experience stigma around sexual assault, Christensen said.

There’s a culture of disbelief about male sexual assault victims, Christensen said. While there are approximately 19,255 men who said they experienced sexual assault in FY 2021 alone, the majority of cases that go to courts-martial will have female victims, he said.

And that stigma plays out in the reporting, with 16 percent of male service members reporting sexual assault in FY 2021 compared to 33 percent of female service ones. For the Navy, 12 percent of male sailors reported sexual assault, while 28 percent of female sailors did.

Reporting a sexual assault, especially in an unrestricted case, comes with its challenges for victims, especially if they do not trust the system. One in three women report retaliation of some sort after making a sexual assault report, Galbreath said.

The DoD found that female victims tend to not want to testify in the cases because they do not want their morals questioned as part of the court-martial, he said. If a victim does not participate it can be nearly impossible to move forward with a case because of the accused’s right to face their accuser.

In FY 2021, 31 percent of cases had victims who declined to participate. Cases that are referred to court-martial also decreased in FY 2021, down to 42 percent from 49 percent in FY 2020, as the military sees a downward trend continue.

The Navy saw an increase in the percentage of victims who declined to participate, 8.7 percent vs. 6 percent in FY 2020.

Command action was taken in 434 out of 770 sexual and non-sexual assault cases, according to the Navy-specific appendix. Of the 434 cases, 81 were referred to court-martial, where 51 cases went to trial. The Navy saw 35 convictions in sexual assault cases in FY 2021.

There were 15 sailors separated in FY 2021 due to sexual assault charges — five came from court-martial results, the others from nonjudicial punishment.

The military is currently in the process of implementing several changes as a result of the Secretary of Defense’s Independent Review Commission of Sexual Assault in the Military, Foster said.

There were 82 recommendations that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved.

The Navy has already started to work on these recommendations, Hands said, including establishing a dedicated prevention workforce focused on sexual assault and harassment.

“Eradicating sexual assault and other harmful behaviors is a top priority for the Navy and senior leaders are deeply committed to taking unprecedented action through strategies that promote prevention, force resiliency and warfighting readiness,” she said in the statement.

Austin started addressing sexual assault on his first day in office, Galbreath said. One thing that Galbreath said he noticed in his 15 years working on military sexual trauma is that there is funding and resources under Austin’s Defense Department.

Christensen is hopeful for change as a result of the reforms the military has pledged, but he is still hesitant.

“So much of it’s gonna depend on whether or not leadership has the right attitude, when it comes to implementing these reforms,” he said.