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DOD study: Military sexual assaults down, reports up

The Department of Defense (DOD) presented its Report to the President of the United States on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response for fiscal year 2014. The report contained both good news and bad news.

When the DOD issued its annual report on sexual assault in the military for fiscal year 2012, at least 26,000 service members – 14,000 male, 12,000 female – had been sexually assaulted. The new report estimates that instances of sexual assault have dropped to 19,000. Reporting of sexual assault also increased by eight percent.

Sexual assault is a severely under reported crime; victims often struggle with fears that other people will judge, or disbelieve them, and oftentimes this leads to feelings of isolation. The emphasis on loyalty, rank and toughness within the military leads to an even greater reluctance to report sexual assaults. The higher rates of reporting reveals victims have an increased trust that they will be believed and find justice.

This leads to the bad news: often victims often don’t find support coming forward. Despite a new law making retaliation a punishable offense, nearly two-thirds of those who said they reported an assault also said they experienced some form of retaliation, either socially or professionally.

Two years ago, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta screened The Invisible War, a documentary about the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the military, and the retaliation victims face when coming forward. According to both the documentary and the report, incidents of sexual assault and the retaliation that service members face often originate from the chain of command. After the screening, Panetta moved the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases out of the hands of frontline commanders and pushed it to senior levels of colonel and captain (Navy).

This critical first step is one of many important efforts to end sexual violence. In January, the White House launched “It’s On Us,” a sexual assault prevention campaign The messaging and recommendations of this campaign focuses on college campuses and has been integrated into all military service academies, and sexual assault prevention training has been incorporated into all levels on the military, including initial entry training.

Work continues across the U.S. to improve the culture and prevent sexual assault in the military. In the Senate, a bipartisan group of legislators are pushing to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command entirely, and the 2014 Victims Protection Act, which passed unanimously in the Senate, is awaiting approval in Congress.

Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual violence. Information and resources are available to help you learn more about this topic.