Military Must Better Understand Sexual Assaults to Combat Them


Jun 22, 2021

U.S. Army paratroopers move to an assembly area at Normandy Drop Zone, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, February 1, 2019, photo by Sgt. Taylor Hoganson/U.S. Army

Photo by Sgt. Taylor Hoganson/U.S. Army

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on June 21, 2021.

Sexual minorities in the U.S. military—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and others who don't identify as heterosexual—represent about 12 percent of the active-duty population. But according to our new research, they account for an estimated 43 percent of those who are sexually assaulted.

This raises critical questions for the Pentagon as it tries to reduce the 20,000 sexual assaults in the ranks each year: Do military leaders know that most sexual assaults don't involve men seeking nonconsensual sex from women? A significant portion may look more like hazing, bullying, or hate crimes. And yet these have not been the focus of policy discussions or assault-prevention training materials used by the military.

It's true that individual women in the services face a much greater risk of sexual assault—about seven times higher—than men do. But arousal or sexual intent isn't required for a sexual assault charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Instead, many of these nonconsensual violations, such as “oil checks” or “teabagging,” are meant to harm, humiliate, or debase the victim. These demeaning attacks are especially common among the assaults on men and are more likely to involve injuries and threats of violence.

More than a third of assaulted men and nearly a quarter of assaulted women said their assailants' motive was to bully or haze them.

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According to the 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of active-duty members, more than a third of assaulted men and nearly a quarter of assaulted women said their assailants' motive was to bully or haze them. We also know that the 9 percent of men who did not indicate a heterosexual orientation on the survey accounted for 48 percent of all men who were sexually assaulted. The 23 percent of women who did not indicate a heterosexual orientation accounted for 40 percent of the sexual assaults against women. However, we do not know how many of those assaults are targeting sexual minorities in order to injure or bully those individuals, that is to say, how many are both sexual assaults and hate crimes against sexual minorities.

The Department of Defense has information from this survey that would help to better describe the high rate of sexual assaults against sexual minorities, but that information has not been released. It would be very helpful to understand the context of these assaults against sexual minorities to craft a more effective prevention program. Was the sexual assault a type of bullying or hazing? Did it occur at work or while off-duty? Did it involve multiple perpetrators? Did the assault co-occur with sexual harassment based on sexual orientation? Are these single incidents or repeated assaults? Are these assaults clustered within particular installations or commands? DoD should investigate these issues to alert officers and enlisted members to the situations they should guard against.

Tolerance for sexual harassment is inextricably connected with greater risk of sexual assault.

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Our earlier research has shown, for instance, that tolerance for sexual harassment is inextricably connected with greater risk of sexual assault. Therefore, commanders at all levels should be held accountable for establishing environments free of harassment, sexual and otherwise.

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, set up by President Biden in February, recently recommended removing decisions about prosecution of sexual assaults from the chain of command. If implemented, that change may lead to more prosecutions—but it is unlikely to substantially reduce the number of sexual assaults. To do that, military leaders need to know what specific behaviors they are trying to prevent. Current training and prevention materials are not sufficiently focused on the sexual assaults of sexual minorities, nor on the sexual assaults done to bully, haze, or abuse service members, given how common those types of assaults are in the military. This suggests that commanders and service members may not be receiving the information they need to do effective prevention of sexual assaults.

Andrew R. Morral and Terry L. Schell are senior behavioral scientists who research sexual harassment and assault in the armed forces at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.