Combating Sexual Assault in the Military

thumbnail_defenseThousands of military servicemembers have reported experiencing sexual assaults. Beyond the serious and long-lasting implications for the victims, sexual assault in the military can also negatively affect unit readiness, cohesion, and morale. For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the WatchBlog shares our findings on sexual assault in the military.

Sexual Assaults of Servicemembers

Thousands of men and women in uniform have reported being sexually assaulted, but many more likely never file a report. In fiscal year 2014, the Department of Defense (DOD) received 5,284 reports of sexual assault involving both male and female military servicemember victims, as shown below.

fig1(Excerpted from GAO-15-284)

However, DOD estimates that the majority of sexual assaults within the military go unreported. Based on active duty servicemembers’ responses to a 2012 survey on workplace and gender relations, DOD estimated that 26,000 military servicemembers experienced unwanted sexual contact in the prior year.

DOD’s Plans for Addressing Sexual Assaults

In 2004, in response to congressional action, DOD established its sexual assault prevention and response program. This program promotes prevention and encourages increased reporting of sexual assault crimes, such as through posters like the ones below, and improves victim response capabilities.

fig2(Excerpted from GAO-15-284)

Since 2008, we have made 38 recommendations regarding DOD’s sexual assault prevention and response efforts. In response to some of our recommendations, the department has

  • reviewed its sexual assault prevention and response training for servicemembers, particularly for new servicemembers and commanders;
  • examined its policy to determine whether changes were needed to effectively implement the sexual assault prevention and response program in joint and deployed environments; and
  • established standardized data for the military services’ annual report submissions to enhance visibility over the incidence of sexual assaults involving servicemembers.

More to Be Done

While DOD has addressed some areas of concern surrounding sexual assault, we have found that more needs to be done. Specifically,

  • to address sexual assaults on male servicemembers, we recommended that DOD incorporate information about victimization of men in its sexual assault awareness materials. We found that the materials the department currently uses, such as the posters above, generally either didn’t identify the gender of the perpetrator or the victim, or specifically portrayed a man as the perpetrator and a woman as the victim;
  • to prevent sexual assault in initial military training, we recommended that the department provide more information to decisionmakers about sexual assault and other sexual misconduct during initial military training and subsequent career-specific training; and
  • to enhance care for sexual assault victims in deployed environments, we recommended that DOD provide department-level guidance to victims of sexual assault on the provision of medical and mental health care, whether at home or abroad.

You can track the status of these and all of our open recommendations in our recommendations database, and learn more in our podcast:


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