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Characteristics of Active-Duty Soldiers' Most Serious Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Experiences

In 2021, RAND Arroyo Center was asked to help the U.S. Army better understand the characteristics of sexual harassment and sexual assault experiences among active-duty soldiers, with a focus on identifying differences across several demographic and military characteristics. The research team used data from the Department of Defense's (DoD's) 2016 and 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA) to produce descriptions of the circumstances surrounding women's and men's self-reported most serious experiences of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexual assault over the year prior to survey administration.

For sexual harassment and gender discrimination, the research team focused on differences between men and women and across high- and non–high-risk installations, defined according to an installation's overall risk for sexual harassment. For sexual assault, the team focused on differences between men and women, by sexual orientation, and across high- and non–high-risk installations, defined according to an installation's overall risk for sexual assault.

Sexual Harassment

Women

  • Most common behaviors for sexual harassment: attempts to establish an unwanted relationship, upsetting discussions about sex, offensive sexual jokes, repeated sexual comments about appearance, and gender discrimination (i.e., being mistreated, insulted, or ignored because of gender and told either that women should not have their jobs or that men are better at their jobs)
  • Sexual harassment behaviors commonly co-occur: on average, women experience 3.2 behaviors at one time
Frequency and perpetrator characteristics
  • Frequency: occurred more than once
  • Number: more than one perpetrator
  • Gender: all men
  • Military status: at least one perpetrator in the military
  • Rank relative to respondent: military peer, supervisor, or in chain of command

Men

  • Most common behaviors for sexual harassment: told they did not act like a man, upsetting discussions about sex, exposed to offensive sexual jokes
  • Sexual harassment behaviors commonly co-occur: on average, men experience 2.3 behaviors at one time
Frequency and perpetrator characteristics
  • Frequency: occurred more than once
  • Number: more than one perpetrator
  • Gender: all men
  • Military status: at least one perpetrator in the military
  • Rank relative to respondent: military peer, supervisor, or in chain of command

When and where event occurred

For both men and women, experiences occurred during required military activity, at a military installation, at work during duty hours.

For both men and women, there are few differences in respondents' experiences between high-risk and non–high-risk installations or between only high-risk installations, where risk is above the average for the Army overall.

Sexual Assault

Women are more likely than men to

  • experience completed or attempted penetrative sexual assault
  • describe the assault as sexually motivated
  • be incapacitated at the time of the assault
  • describe the perpetrator as a friend or acquaintance
  • be assaulted in private
  • have been drinking at the time of the assault
  • have a perpetrator who was drinking at the time of the assault

Men are more likely than women to

  • indicate that the perpetrator's intent was to abuse or humiliate them
  • be assaulted by more than one person
  • be assaulted by at least one woman
  • be assaulted by an officer or a subordinate
  • be assaulted during required military activities
  • be assaulted at work, during duty hours
  • describe the assault as hazing

There are few significant and substantively meaningful differences between high-risk and non–high-risk installations, where risk is above the average for the Army overall for either men or women.

Women

Heterosexual women are most likely to

  • be made to touch private areas of the perpetrator's or someone else's body
  • be assaulted by men only

LGBO women are most likely to

  • be assaulted at a military installation
  • be assaulted while being intimate with the perpetrator

Women who do not report their sexual orientation (PNA/NR) are most likely to

  • indicate that the perpetrator's intent was to abuse or humiliate them
  • describe the assault as bullying

Men

Heterosexual men are more likely than LGBO and PNA/NR men to

  • have at least one service member as the perpetrator(s)
  • be assaulted by women only

LGBO and PNA/NR men are more likely than heterosexual men to

  • experience penetrative or attempted penetrative assaults
  • have a perpetrator who was their superior, a higher-ranking member of their chain of command (but not a supervisor), or a stranger
  • be assaulted during training, an official military function, or temporary duty
  • be drinking, drugged, or unaware of whether they had been drugged at the time of the assault
  • describe the assault as hazing or bullying

Sexual Orientation

Groups:

  • Heterosexual
  • LGBO = lesbian, gay, bisexual, or other
  • PNA/NR = prefer not to answer or no response

For women, there are enough cases of sexual assault in the data to create three groups. Men, however, could be sorted into only two groups: heterosexual versus all others (i.e., LGBO + PNA/NR).

It is important to keep in mind that the actual sexual orientations within the PNA/NR group are unknown, and some of the NR group is simply respondents dropping off the survey before completion.

Policy Implications

Prevention efforts should emphasize the most common behaviors and scenarios experienced by soldiers.

  • For sexual harassment, these include gender discrimination; persistent or offensive discussion and jokes about sex; repeated attempts to establish an unwanted romantic or sexual relationship; and insults related to men's masculinity, sexual orientation, or gender expression.
  • For sexual assault, training should be aligned with victims' experiences and emphasize common scenarios across all victims.
    • Current materials focus heavily on heterosexual women as sexual assault victims.
    • There is a need for greater representation of men, sexual minorities, and other soldiers' experiences.
  • For both sexual harassment and sexual assault, there is no need to tailor content for high-risk installations.

Limits on data collection about sexual orientation are intended to protect privacy—but may limit the Army's ability to prevent sexual assault. Pursuing opportunities to change DoD policies would allow detailed data collection on sexual minority soldiers' experiences with assault, harassment, and discrimination to inform prevention efforts.

Limitations

  • Respondents may or may not have officially reported their experiences.
  • If investigated, these experiences may or may not meet the Military Equal Opportunity definition of sexual harassment and gender discrimination or the Uniform Code of Military Justice definition of sexual assault.
  • The focus is on the most serious event as defined by respondents, not all sexual harassment, gender discrimination, or sexual assault experiences.

This infographic describes work done in RAND Arroyo Center and documented in Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in the Active-Component Army: Variation in Most Serious Event Characteristics by Gender and Installation Risk, by Avery Calkins, Matthew Cefalu, Terry L. Schell, Linda Cottrell, Sarah O. Meadows, and Rebecca Collins, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A1385-1, 2021 (available at www.rand.org/t/RRA1385-1), and Sexual Assault Experiences in the Active-Component Army: Variation by Year, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Installation Risk Level, by Avery Calkins, Matthew Cefalu, Terry L. Schell, Linda Cottrell, Sarah O. Meadows, and Rebecca Collins, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A1385-2, 2022 (available at www.rand.org/t/RRA1385-2). The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. RAND is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and committed to the public interest. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors. RAND® is a registered trademark. © 2022 RAND Corporation.

Design: Rick Penn-Kraus. Illustrations: female soldier: fennywiryani/Adobe Stock; male soldier: RobinOlimb/Getty Images; female sitting: Hibrida13/iStock/Getty Images Plus; male sitting: Flatman vector 24/Adobe Stock

To view this infographic online, visit www.rand.org/t/IGA1385-1.

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