Sexual Assault in the Military Is Unacceptable. Here's How to Fix It



Lt. Angela Sadosky takes part in a “Chalk the Walk” display for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in Bremerton, Washington, April 4, 2016, photo by Douglas H Stutz/U.S. Navy

Lt. Angela Sadosky takes part in a “Chalk the Walk” display for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in Bremerton, Washington, April 4, 2016

Photo by Douglas H Stutz/U.S. Navy

by Matthew Chinman and Joie D. Acosta

February 26, 2021

A female Marine's furiously raw TikTok video went viral last week. She recorded it moments after learning that her alleged sexual assailant, a fellow Marine, would not be discharged, even after admitting to his crime. After viewing the video, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, called it “disturbing.”

Despite some steps taken by the Department of Defense (DoD), sexual assault and harassment prevention within the services and at individual installations could be substantially improved. The services could address the problem more systematically and comprehensively than responding to the latest high profile case like Fort Hood, in which multiple leaders were relieved of duty after private first class Vanessa Guillen was sexually harassed and later murdered. While the steps taken at Fort Hood were important efforts in a particularly difficult environment, they alone are not sufficient to address the overall problem.

While these problems feel intractable because they have plagued DoD for years, there are many improvements the department could make right now. In January, Secretary Austin requested a frank assessment of DoD's efforts. In response, researchers at the RAND Corporation summarized the DoD's challenges and developed a series of options to consider based on years of study and RAND's direct consultation with scores of individual DoD installations and military service academies.

First, it is important to understand the current context facing DoD. In recent years, DoD has experienced an increase in problem behaviors, and yet still, most incidents go unreported. We know this because documented cases of assault and harassment are 10 to 20 times less each year than what is reported by service members in confidential, DoD-wide surveys. Even when cases are reported, perpetrators are often not sufficiently held accountable, as may have been the case in the latest Marine incident. The lack of reporting and accountability creates a culture in which potential offenders are not deterred by fear of professional consequences for their actions.

The lack of reporting and accountability creates a culture in which potential offenders are not deterred by fear of professional consequences for their actions.

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While deterrence is critical, alone it is insufficient to prevent sexual assault and harassment. However, too often, annual PowerPoint lectures are all the prevention training service members receive. Most DoD installations lack trained personnel dedicated to prevention and therefore are not implementing and evaluating activities that contain the ingredients of evidence-based prevention, such as comprehensive curriculum, varied skill-building teaching methods, and well-trained staff instruction. The leadership support needed for quality prevention programming varies across the chain of command.

To improve prevention, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) could mandate that services and installations align with a framework for prevention developed by OSD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) called the Prevention Plan of Action (PPoA). This framework recommends ensuring that dedicated, trained personnel implement and continuously evaluate prevention efforts; training and holding leadership accountable for sound prevention practice; and replacing lecture-based trainings and other less effective prevention activities with those that have the best evidence. OSD could provide support for such actions.

To better respond to sexual assault and harassment, OSD could regularly audit military services and individual installations to ensure that multiple channels are available for service members to report assault and harassment, including confidential ones that exist outside their chain of command and that all harassment and discrimination claims are reported, not just those that are officially reported to an equal opportunity office. It also could make sure that systems for tracking allegations of sexual harassment across service members' careers are evaluated; that commanders levy immediate mild sanctions for low-level unprofessional conduct to deter more problematic behavior in the future; that commanders are evaluated, in part, by how they manage sexual assault and harassment claims within their commands; and that sexual harassment reports are filed promptly and effectively to build service member trust in the response system.

While enough is known that action could be taken now, more could be done to enhance understanding of sexual assault and harassment within the military services. DoD could enhance the research agenda of SAPRO by conducting research on the experiences of victims from multiple vantage points, including their families and leaders; characteristics of units with unusually high—or low—sexual assault and harassment rates to identify mutable drivers of risk; characteristics of assault and harassment of service members who describe themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; and new prevention approaches that not only focus on individual service members, but also target command climate.

Working in tandem, these multiple lines of effort—prevention, response, research—could help the department keep service members safe from sexual assault and harassment.

Matthew Chinman and Joie Acosta are senior behavioral scientists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on Newsweek on February 26, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.