Initial Results from Major Survey of U.S. Military Sexual Assault, Harassment


December 4, 2014

The RAND Corporation has released initial results from a study that estimates the number of U.S. service members who experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the past year. The Department of Defense selected RAND to conduct this congressionally mandated study. Approximately 170,000 service members, or 30 percent of the 560,000 invited, answered questions for the study, one of the largest of its kind.

RAND researchers estimate that approximately 20,000 of the U.S. military's 1.3 million active-duty members experienced one or more sexual assaults in the past year, including assaults by other service members, civilians, spouses or others. This represents 4.9 percent of active-duty women and 1 percent of active-duty men.

The study further estimates that 26 percent of active-duty women and 7 percent of active-duty men experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination, collectively referred to as sex-based military equal opportunity (MEO) violations, in the past year.

Additionally, the study found significant differences in rates of sexual assaults and sex-based military equal opportunity violations by branch of service, with fewer Air Force men and women experiencing these events. In forthcoming reports, RAND researchers will investigate if some of these differences are attributable to factors such as the culture, policies or demographic characteristics of each service.

RAND redesigned the survey for 2014 but still provided to a random sample of respondents the questionnaire used in earlier Defense Department studies. This allowed RAND researchers to compare the prevalence of “unwanted sexual contact” (the definition from earlier studies) and sexual harassment in 2014 to the prevalence measured in 2012, 2010 and 2006. Rates of unwanted sexual contact for active-duty women declined from 6.1 percent in 2012 to 4.3 percent in 2014. Rates for both men and women are lower than in 2006 but about the same as in 2010.

Among women who reported a sexual assault to the military, 62 percent, the same as in 2012, indicated they experienced some type of social or professional retaliation.

The new RAND measure identifies a larger number of penetrative sexual assaults than is found using the DoD measure. This finding reflects differences in the types of events counted by the two survey forms in 2014, not a change over time. Among service members who experienced at least one sexual assault in the last year, the new measure classified 43 percent of women and 35 percent of men as experiencing a penetrative sexual assault (a category that includes rape). Using the previous DoD measure, which inquires about a single unwanted sexual contact in the past year, 29 percent of women and 11 percent of men who had an unwanted sexual contact in 2014, were classified as experiencing a penetrative event. Those proportions were unchanged from 2012.

RAND researchers also sampled about 14,000 active-duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard, more than half of whom participated in the survey. Those results suggest that about 270 active-duty Coast Guard members (0.3 percent of men, 3 percent of women) experienced a sexual assault in the past year, which is significantly lower than rates observed across Defense Department services. In addition, Coast Guard men experienced lower rates of sex-based military equal opportunity violations than were found in Defense Department services, while rates among women were comparable to those of women across the services.

The RAND Military Workplace Study, as it is officially known, differs from the prior Defense Department Workplace and Gender Relations Surveys in several ways. The changes were designed to address specific criticisms of the earlier studies. Among the changes were to dramatically enlarge the survey's sample size, align the measures with military definitions of sex crimes and equal opportunity violations, simplify the wording of key questions and conduct the study by an organization outside of the Department of Defense.

The RAND research team adopted many recommendations from the congressionally directed DoD Response Systems to Adult Sexual Crimes Panel, specifically to assess sexual assault crimes as defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice instead of using the broader “unwanted sexual contact” measure previously used to assess the climate of sexual misconduct in the services.

“The redesigned survey allows for clear and interpretable evidence about how many crimes are occurring against service members,” said Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and co-leader of the research. “Having precise and interpretable data will facilitate efforts within the Defense Department and Congress to address these problems.”

RAND researchers consulted with scientific experts, advocacy groups, and service members and veterans (including many who had experienced sexual assault or harassment) to ensure that each survey question accurately assessed the legal constructs it was designed to measure and that the questions — which used behaviorally and anatomically specific language like that found in the law — were unambiguous and would be well understood by respondents.

“Our team of experienced researchers was aided by a scientific advisory board consisting of world-renowned experts on sexual assault, civilian and military law, the assessment of sexual assault and harassment, victim services, survey methodology, and military sociology,” said Kristie Gore, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and co-leader of the research.

The results released today represent only the highest-level findings for active-duty forces. RAND researchers will continue to analyze the information received from respondents, with the final results scheduled for release in spring 2015.

Westat supported the fielding of the study, which was sponsored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and conducted by the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center.

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