What is Military Sexual Assault?
According to the Department of Defense (DoD), sexual assault is defined as intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority, or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual assault can occur without regard to gender or spousal relationship or age of the victim. Sexual assault must involve physical contact. DoD concluded that “sexual harassment is a leading factor affecting the unit climate on sexual assault.” The majority of victims were harassed by someone in their chain of command. Veterans from all eras of service – from World War II to those who served more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan – have reported experiencing Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
What is considered Military Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault includes rape, forcible sodomy (oral or anal sex), and other unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature that is aggravated, abusive, or wrongful (including unwanted and inappropriate sexual contact) attempts to commit these acts.
Sexual assault and MST are pervasive problems in the United States Armed Forces. The aftermath of sexual assault looks different for all MST survivors.
History of Military Sexual Assault
The time in which rape has been a crime tried in the military criminal justice system is amazingly short. For much of the nation’s history, except during periods of war, military members accused of common law crimes were tried in civilian courts established under Article III of the Constitution. Military rape law did not begin until the late 1980s. Publicized sexual assault scandals brought the topic of military sexual assault to the forefront and forced legislation, task forces, and commissions to change the military justice system. The DoD issued the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Response policy, now Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). However, the most dramatic changes in military justice has occurred in the past ten years.
Within the DoD, official epidemiological surveillance of sexual harassment and assault historically has been conducted via periodic administrations of the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey (WGRS). This survey was first fielded in 1988 and has undergone several revisions but has always included measures of sexual harassment and assault. Data from the WGRS over the approximate period of the War on Terror (2002–2012), about 8% to 9% of women and 1% to 3% of men reported coercive sexual harassment (e.g., quid pro quo promises of job benefits or threats of negative consequences). In February of 2004, the former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld directed Dr. David S. C. Chu, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, to review the DoD process for treatment and care of victims of sexual assault in the Military Services.
On December 21, 2012, the DoD released key findings from the Academic Program Year (APY) 2011-2012 Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the United States Military Service Academies. According to this report, the overall prevalence rate of unwanted sexual contact increased in all three military academies. Beginning the summer 2013 through 2016, there were numerous reports in the media on sexual assault incidents in the U.S. armed services. In the past ten years, there has been an increase in response to incidents of MST as well as legislative action on the issue. Most recently, during hearings held last year as a result of the DoD’s annual report on sexual violence and harassment at the academies, which noted that assaults were up 47% over the previous year, Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona captured the attention of Congress, and of the nation, when she revealed in a hearing that she had been raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force. It was a top story from NPR to Fox News. The increase in MST in the armed forces implicates the well-being of service members and hampers the effectiveness of service.
Facts on Military Sexual Assault
- High demand for VA health care. 1,307,781 outpatient visits took place at the VA for MST-related care in 2015.
- The likelihood that a person’s mental health suffers and experience suicidal or depressive thoughts increases after sexual violence. Posttraumatic stress disorder can be common along with other mental health conditions.
- People who have been sexually assaulted are more at risk for substance use and substance abuse than the general public.
- Sexual violence and the following psychological trauma also affects victims’ relationships with their family members, friends, and co-workers.
- Victims are at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Statistics on Military Sexual Assault
- Sexual violence remains pervasive. In 2018, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped including 13,000 women and 7,500 men. The rate of sexual assault and rape jumped by almost 40% from 2016 to 2018, and for women veterans, the rate increased by over 50% to the highest level since 2006.
- Of women who reported a penetrative sexual assault, 59% were assaulted by someone with a higher rank than them, and 24% were assaulted by someone in their chain of command.
- Vast majority of cases go unreported. 76.1% of victims did not report the crime in 2018.
- Retaliation is the norm. 64% of women who reported a sexual assault face retaliation. 66% of retaliation reports alleged that retaliators were in the reporter’s chain of command. A third of victims are discharged after reporting, typically within 7 months of making a report. Victims received harsher discharges, with 24% separate under less than fully honorable conditions, compared to 15% of all service members.
- Low trust and satisfaction in the system. Over 1 in 4 victims who did not report feared retaliation from their command or coworkers. Nearly 1 in 3 victims who did not report feared the process would be unfair or nothing would be done. Less than half of the female veteran survivors felt well supported by their chain of command.
- Convictions have plummeted by almost 60% in unrestricted sexual assaults reported since 2015. In 2018, of the 5,805 unrestricted reports of sexual assault, 307 cases were tried by court-martial, and 108 offenders were convicted of a nonconsensual sex offense.
- 40% of homeless women veterans have faced MST. Veterans with an MST history are over twice as likely to experience homelessness.
- 9 out of every 10 victims of rape are female veterans.
Steps Toward Healing
First, get to a safe place. If you are in need of urgent medical attention, call 911. If you are not injured, you still need medical assistance to protect both your mental health and physical health. To protect evidence, it is important that you do not shower, brush your teeth, put on make-up, eat, drink, or change your clothes until advised to do so. You or your healthcare provider at your military healthcare facility may report the crime to law enforcement, criminal investigation agencies, or to your chain of command. If you feel uncomfortable reporting the crime, consider calling a confidential counseling resource available to you.
Sexual assault can be reported at any time, regardless of the amount of time since the assault. Early reporting also provides the best opportunity to gather testimony from possible witnesses before their memories fade or they move to other locations.
DoD Safe Helpline provides confidential crisis intervention, support and information to service members of the DoD community who have been sexually assaulted. DoD Safe Helpline is available anytime, anywhere – 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, worldwide at 877-995-5247.
Other resources are the local medical treatment facility; Military Police/Criminal Investigation Division; your commander, supervisor, or First Sergeant; the chaplain, social services, family advocacy, and legal services. Army psychiatric counselors and chaplains are confidential counseling channels.
You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is free and confidential, 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE.
 Defense Manpower Data Center: 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members. DMDC Briefing & Survey Note No. 2013.007. Arlington, VA, Defense Manpower Data Center, 2013. Available at http://www.sapr.mil/public/docs/research/2012workplace_and_gender_relations_survey_of_active duty_members-survey_note_and_briefing.pdf; accessed May 28, 2015.
 DoD Evaluates Sexual Harassment and Prevention Response Efforts at Military Academies,” DOD News, December 21, 2012, at http://archive.defense.gov/Releases/Release.aspx?ReleaseID=15756.
 DG Kilpatrick, CN Edumuds, AK Seymour. Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center and Medical University of South Carolina (1992).
 L Wilson, “The Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma: A Meta-Analysis,” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse (2016)
 Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 (2013).