Risk of Sexual Assault in Military Higher in Locations and Units Where Sexual Harassment Is More Common

For Release

March 2, 2021

U.S. military service members who serve in locations with high levels of so-called ambient sexual harassment—harassment of others within their unit or installation—have a higher risk of being sexually assaulted, a RAND Corporation report finds.

The rate of ambient sexual harassment in the military varies substantially among units, installations, and major commands. Where rates are higher than the Department of Defense average, personnel are at a high risk for sexual assault whether or not they were personally sexually harassed.

On average, in environments with high ambient sexual harassment, the report found that sexual assault risk for women increased by a factor of 1.5 and assault risk for men increased by a factor of 1.8, relative to their risk in an environment with low ambient sexual harassment. The rate of ambient sexual harassment of men was predictive of sexual assault for both male and female assault victims, and was a better predictor of assault risk than sexual harassment of women.

Among male service members, the association between ambient sexual harassment and sexual assault was statistically significant only in the Navy, where Navy men serving in units with higher than average rates of ambient sexual harassment have twice the risk of being sexually assaulted. For women, the association between sexual assault and ambient sexual harassment was similar across all branches of the military.

“We know that sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are closely linked, but this is the first time we've looked at how the risk of sexual assault for each individual is associated with the sexual harassment of other service members in their environment,” said Terry Schell, lead author of the report and a senior behavioral scientist at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. “Even controlling for shared risk factors, we found that service members are at greater risk of being sexually assaulted when working in an environment where sexual harassment is more common.”

The authors suggest that sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military should be viewed together as a single problem or underlying workplace disorder, greatly affected by shared environmental factors such as command climate, group dynamics, or cultural norms. For instance, when sexual harassment goes unpunished or ignored in a unit, it may create an environment that promotes sexually inappropriate workplace behavior and can lead to an escalation from harassment to assault. These factors appear to be predictive in addition to the individual characteristics of the victim or perpetrator, and they may provide additional targets for programs to prevent sexual assault.

As a result, the authors recommend that policy changes or educational efforts to prevent sexual assault should also emphasize stopping sexual harassment. “Over the last decade the military has implemented improved sexual assault prevention and response programs; however, efforts to prevent and respond to sexual harassment are underdeveloped,” Schell said. For example, military leaders are not required to report sexual harassment to investigative authorities, or to formally document accusations of harassment in military records.

The report, drawing on data from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study, was completed in 2019, and recently cleared for publication by DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). The report is the latest in a series of reports that take a more detailed look at specific findings from the initial survey.

Other authors of the report, “The Relationship Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military: Findings from the RAND Military Workplace Study,” are Matthew Cefalu, Coreen Farris, and Andrew Morral.

The research was sponsored by the Department of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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