The anonymous results from a biennial Pentagon survey indicate that sexual assaults among active duty members of the U.S. military have increased significantly over the past couple of years, increasing by nearly 40 percent in comparison to a similar 2016 survey. The survey found that in 2018 over 20,000 members of the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force reported being the victims of sexual assault, including acts like groping, sexual abuse, rape, or simply the attempt to commit those acts. A majority the victims were acquainted with their assailant and many of the incidents involved alcohol.
Young women between the ages of 17 and 24 faced the highest rate of sexual assault in comparison to other groups, a finding that Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, the executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the Defense Department, described as “disheartening.” “These are our youngest service members and it is extremely frustrating because we’ve been working at this for a really long time,” she told ABC News.
Overall, over half of the women in the military are POC. Members of the Marine Corps experienced the highest rate of sexual assault compared to the other branches of the military. This figure may be of particular concern to enlisted Latinas, since about a third of the women in the Marine Corps are Hispanic.
Van Winkle suggested that her office would work to address sexual assault from both a specific and systemic approach, as data has indicated that policymakers will need to do more than install measures that protect vulnerable groups in the military: they will also need to better address the climate of toxic leadership that allows sexual assault to occur. “What we’re moving towards is that you’re not only accountable for your own behavior but you’re accountable for true command climate,” she said. “You are accountable for what’s happening within the peers underneath you.” From a punitive standpoint, the Defense Department plans to criminalize sexual harassment as a way to crack down on assault.
Though the rising incidence of sexual assault indicates that the current protocol is doing little to actually protect members of the military from harm, there was at least one positive takeaway from the survey data. Last year (as well as in 2016) one in three service members reported their assault to a superior; in comparison, only one in 14 were reporting these incidents in 2006. Two-thirds of last year’s reported assaults resulted in disciplinary action against the alleged assailant.