Needs of Male Sexual Assault Victims in the U.S. Armed Forces

by Miriam Matthews, Coreen Farris, Margaret Tankard, Michael Stephen Dunbar

This Article

RAND Health Quarterly, 2018; 8(2):7

Abstract

In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Congress included a requirement to improve prevention of and response to sexual assaults in which the victim is a male member of the U.S. armed forces. To support this effort, RAND researchers reviewed previous research on male sexual assault and specifically considered research on male sexual assault in the U.S. military. The researchers also conducted interviews with individuals who provide support services to U.S. military personnel and with civilian experts who study male sexual assault or provide services to male victims. Although research considering the needs of and services for male sexual assault victims is more limited than research addressing female victims of sexual assault, the available research provides initial information on the prevalence, characteristics, consequences, and public perceptions of male sexual assault. This literature—along with the results of interviews that addressed needs of male sexual assault victims, reporting and help-seeking among victims, and knowledge and perceptions about such assaults—suggests potential avenues for the U.S. Department of Defense to pursue to better address the needs of male sexual assault victims in the U.S. military. These avenues include improvements to reporting procedures, counseling services, outreach, and education and training of service providers and servicemembers.

For more information, see RAND RR-2167-OSD at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2167.html

Full Text

In recent years, the public and Congress have shown increased interest in meeting the needs of male servicemembers who have been sexually assaulted (see, for example, Lamothe, 2015). In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 (Pub. L. 114-92), Congress included a requirement to improve prevention of and response to sexual assaults against male members of the U.S. armed forces. In particular, Congress instructed the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to develop a plan to prevent and respond to sexual assaults of military men that specifically addresses the needs of male victims, including their medical and mental health care needs.1 This study provides information relevant to this requirement. Specifically, the study contains information to assist with the implementation of DoD's Plan to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Assault of Military Men (DoD, 2016).

To begin documenting the needs of male sexual assault victims in the U.S. military services, we first reviewed the published research on sexual assault against men, including the characteristics of perpetrators and victims, post-assault needs, associated services for male victims, and public perception of male victims. We then conducted semi-structured telephone interviews with eight experts external to DoD and 56 individuals who provide services to sexual assault victims in the U.S. military.2 For this study, military service providers included chaplains, mental health care providers, physical health care providers (e.g., sexual assault nurse examiners, sexual assault medical forensic examiners), legal counsel (including special victims' counsel), special agents, sexual assault response coordinators, and victim advocates. Interview topics included needs, reporting, resources, and outreach related to male sexual assault victims. The topics also included training for service providers and interviewees' work experiences involving public awareness of male sexual assault.3

Review of Previous Research on Male Sexual Assault Characteristics

Research addressing various aspects of male sexual assault, including estimated prevalence and characteristics, has slowly increased over the past several decades.

Definition of Sexual Assault

DoD Instruction 6495.02 defines sexual assault, similar to Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) (10 U.S.C. 920), as "intentional sexual contact characterized by the use of force, threats, intimidation, or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. As used in this Instruction, the term includes a broad category of sexual offenses consisting of the following specific UCMJ offenses: rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, forcible sodomy (forced oral or anal sex), or attempts to commit these offenses" (DoD, 2013, p. 91).

To be clear, DoD defines consent to include "words or overt acts indicating a freely given agreement to the sexual conduct at issue by a competent person," and consent cannot be given if the person is "sleeping or incapacitated, such as due to age, alcohol or drugs, or mental incapacity" (DoD, 2012, p. 15). These definitions are consistent with most U.S. state statutes on sexual assault, the majority of which include both penetrative and nonpenetrative sexual contact crimes, offender behaviors beyond physical force (such as threats and intimidation), and situations in which the victim is not legally capable of providing consent (Tracy et al., 2012).

Prevalence of Male Sexual Assault

Although many researchers have estimated the prevalence of sexual assault against civilian men, these estimates have varied dramatically across studies (from 0.2 percent to 73 percent among community and university samples) (see Peterson et al., 2011, for a review). Part of the variation in reported estimates appears to be due to substantial sample variation, discrepancies in the time frames referenced across studies (e.g., lifetime, past 12 months), references to different behaviors or categories of behaviors, and other methodological variation across studies (Peterson et al., 2011). One survey that included men, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (fielded in 2011), used 21 behaviorally specific items to measure rape, attempted rape, and other sexual violence (Breiding et al., 2014). Based on this survey, the researchers estimated that 1.7 percent of men experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (compared with 19.3 percent of women). In addition, they estimated that 23.4 percent of men experienced other sexual violence in their lifetime (e.g., being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact).

Methodological and definitional differences across studies also appear to influence prevalence estimates among U.S. servicemen, and thus researchers have also reported a broad range of sexual assault rates for military men (from 0.02 percent to 12 percent) (Hoyt, Klosterman Rielage, and Williams, 2011). The most recent assessment of sexual assault against military men, the 2016 DoD Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA) (Davis et al., 2017), used methodology developed for the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study (RMWS) (see Morral, Gore, and Schell, 2014). The 2014 RMWS was designed to address criticisms in prior research on military sexual assault. For example, the study relied on a large representative sample, obtained an acceptable survey response rate, and used behaviorally specific survey items that aligned with the sexual assault criteria outlined in Article 120 of the UCMJ (see Morral, Gore, and Schell, 2014). The 2016 fielding of the WGRA used these methods, and results showed that approximately 0.6 percent of active-duty men had experienced a sexual assault in the past year, with rates ranging from 0.3 percent in the Air Force to 0.9 percent in the Navy (Davis and Grifka, 2017a). For lifetime prevalence, the estimate was that 2.2 percent of active-duty men had experienced a sexual assault in their lifetime, and 1.8 percent had experienced a sexual assault since joining the military (Davis and Grifka, 2017a).

Characteristics of Male Sexual Assault

Beyond examining prevalence estimates, research has explored the characteristics of male sexual assault, including victim, perpetrator, and assault characteristics.

Perpetrator Characteristics

Among male servicemembers who had been sexually assaulted in the past year, 69 percent indicated that the perpetrator was a man or that the group of people who assaulted them included both men and women (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). In addition, a substantial proportion of sexual assaults against active-duty servicemen involved more than one perpetrator (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). Specifically, 33 percent of active-duty male sexual assault victims indicated that there were multiple offenders (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). Among male servicemembers who were sexually assaulted in the past year, the largest proportion indicated that they were assaulted by a friend or acquaintance (43 percent), but many indicated that they were assaulted by a stranger (19 percent) or that they did not know who assaulted them (31 percent) (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017).

Among male civilians, 86 percent of those who reported the assault to civilian law enforcement indicated that the perpetrator was a man (Choudhary et al., 2012). In addition, a larger proportion of civilian male sexual assaults than of civilian female sexual assaults appear to involve more than one perpetrator (Bullock and Beckson, 2011; McLean, 2013). Most perpetrators of sexual assault against civilian men also appear to be known to the victim (94 percent) (Choudhary et al., 2012).

Victim Characteristics

In terms of victim characteristics, servicemen who identified as gay, bisexual, or transgender were substantially more likely to be sexually assaulted in the past year (3.5 percent) than were those who did not identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender (0.3 percent) (Davis et al., 2017). Enlisted servicemen in lower pay grades were more likely than those in higher pay grades to be sexually assaulted (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). Among active-duty servicemen who had experienced a sexual assault in the past year, most were under age 30 (71 percent), white (56 percent), and in junior enlisted pay grades (67 percent) (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017).

Research has shown that, among civilians, many (if not most) victims of male sexual assault are heterosexual (Bullock and Beckson, 2011; Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997; McLean, 2013). However, gay or bisexual men experience sexual assault at higher rates than heterosexual men (Bullock and Beckson, 2011; Langenderfer-Magruder et al., 2016), and a 2009 study found that approximately 50 percent of transgender persons had experienced unwanted sexual activity in their lifetime (Stotzer, 2009). Research suggests that most civilian male victims in the United States are from a household with an income of either $25,000–$74,999 (50 percent) or less than $25,000 (46.4 percent) (Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997; Weiss, 2010). In addition, most victims are non-Hispanic, white (Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997; Weiss, 2010). Overall, both men and women with a history of childhood sexual abuse are at higher risk for experiencing sexual assault as an adult (Hines, 2007).

Assault Characteristics

In addition to examining the characteristics of perpetrators and victims of male sexual assault, studies have also examined the characteristics of the assaults perpetrated against male victims. Research has shown that, among servicemen who had been sexually assaulted in the past year, approximately one-third experienced a penetrative sexual assault (35 percent), and two-thirds experienced a nonpenetrative or attempted penetrative assault (65 percent) (Davis and Grifka, 2017a). The majority of sexual assaults perpetrated against civilian men involved penetrative anal assault (Bullock and Beckson, 2011; Hillman et al., 1991; Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997; McLean, 2013; Stermac, del Bove, and Addison, 2004).

More than 40 percent of civilian male victims reported being assaulted in a residence (Choudhary et al., 2012; Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997; Weiss, 2010). By contrast, a smaller proportion of military male victims reported being assaulted in a residence (25 percent) (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). Most male, active-duty victims reported being sexually assaulted at a military installation or aboard a military ship (64 percent). Nearly half were assaulted at their workplace during duty hours (45 percent), and 31 percent were assaulted while out with friends or at a party (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017).

In addition to being sexually assaulted, approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of civilian male victims are physically injured, typically involving injuries to the perineal or anal area (McLean, 2013; Stermac, del Bove, and Addison, 2004), and 6 percent to 9 percent require medical attention (Stermac, del Bove, and Addison, 2004; Weiss, 2010). For military victims of male sexual assault, about one-half indicated that they were injured during the assault, but the type of injury was not assessed (Morral, Gore, and Schell, 2014). Assault-related injuries were more common among servicemen relative to servicewomen (Morral, Gore, and Schell, 2014).

An involuntary erection and ejaculation during sexual assault can occur for some male victims (Bullock and Beckson, 2011). For example, some men may experience an erection during times of intense fear or pain (Tewksbury, 2007). In addition, victims may intentionally ejaculate to minimize the assault duration, or offenders may make the victim ejaculate as a strategy to confuse the victim and discourage reporting (Fuchs, 2004). Research on arousal and ejaculation during a male sexual assault is limited, and no data are available on prevalence in a military sample. One study found that, among civilians, 18 percent of male victims who accessed sexual assault counseling services were stimulated to ejaculation (King and Woollett, 1997). Research reinforces that victim arousal or ejaculation is not indicative of victim consent (e.g., Bullock and Beckson, 2011; Fuchs, 2004).

Many sexual assaults against military men may be part of hazing acts. Drawing from the most recent reported estimates, military male victims (70 percent) were far more likely than military female victims (42 percent) to indicate that the assault was intended to abuse or humiliate them (Jaycox, Schell, Morral, et al., 2015). Other suggestions that military male sexual assault victims are more likely to be assaulted as part of hazing events than are military female victims include the fact that male victims (45 percent) are more likely than female victims (27 percent) to indicate that the assault took place at work during duty hours (Davis and Grifka, 2017b). Finally, military male victims (26 percent) are more than twice as likely as military female victims (10 percent) to label their worst sexual assault in the past year as a "hazing" incident (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017).

Identifying and Addressing the Needs of Male Sexual Assault Victims

To better address the needs of servicemen who have been sexually assaulted, it is necessary to first understand what those needs are and then ensure that service providers are appropriately trained to address the identified needs. We addressed these topics in our interviews.

Perceived Needs of Victims

Across the individuals we interviewed, the following were discussed as needs of all sexual assault victims and of male victims specifically: mental health care, advocacy, chain-of-command support, social support, information, legal support, and medical care. More interviewees discussed mental health care needs than any other need, and medical care needs were raised least often. The limited discussion of medical care needs among interviewees could be attributed to multiple factors, including delays in help-seeking until after physical symptoms have resolved and the limited number of physical health (e.g., medical) service providers in our sample.

When we asked interviewees to compare the needs of male and female sexual assault victims in the military, military service providers perceived that there were some differences between men and women. When discussing these differences, service providers tended to discuss gender differences in the barriers to accessing needed services rather than differences in the types of services needed. These barriers for men included concerns over stigma and reluctance to report.

Advocacy, Social Support, and Information

According to research with civilians, male sexual assault victims may isolate themselves from others, including emotionally distancing themselves and withdrawing from their social network (Walker, Archer, and Davies, 2005). Much of the research addressing military sexual assault among U.S. military veterans assesses a broad category of experiences that are labeled military sexual trauma (MST). MST, as defined by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs screening questions, includes experiencing sexual contact via threat or force or experiencing unwanted sexual attention (e.g., touching, pressuring for sexual favors) while in the military (Maguen et al., 2012). Previous research showed that, among veterans who had been referred to a mental health clinic for anxiety, those who had experienced MST (1) perceived less support from those in their social network than those who had not experienced MST and (2) were more likely to indicate that they had been "shamed, embarrassed, or repeatedly told [they were] no good" (Mondragon et al., 2015).

To ensure that all military sexual assault victims have immediate access to advocacy, social support, and information, each service branch's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response or Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program includes victim advocates who are available to guide victims through reporting decisions, provide information about available services, accompany victims to post-assault medical or legal appointments, address immediate safety needs, and offer support (DoD, 2013).

Support services may be particularly important to male victims. Four of the military service providers we interviewed believed that male sexual assault victims have less social support, and ten providers believed that male victims experience more shame than female victims. In addition, both previous research and comments from our interviewees suggest that male victims may need support to process concerns about sexual identity and perceived loss of masculinity that can arise after a sexual assault. Interviewee comments that emphasized male-specific concerns regarding sexuality and identity suggest that these might be areas where DoD should provide additional support.

Mental Health Care

According to the published literature on civilian sexual assaults, a large proportion of male sexual assault victims experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, self-blame, low self-esteem, or problems with anger control following the assault (Isely and Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997; Walker, Archer, and Davies, 2005). Among military veterans who sought care at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility, men and women who had experienced MST had higher odds of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, and depression than veterans who were not victims of MST during their military career (Kimerling et al., 2010; Maguen et al., 2012). Male victims, whether civilian or military, may experience suicidal ideation, and some may make a suicide attempt (Schry et al., 2015; Tiet, Finney, and Moos, 2006; Walker, Archer, and Davies, 2005). For male sexual assault victims who develop psychiatric conditions, such as major depressive disorder or PTSD, evidence-based treatments for these conditions are available. However, limited research has assessed the efficacy of mental health treatment specifically designed to assist male sexual assault victims.

Eighteen of the military service providers we interviewed believed that the military system could benefit from additional male-specific mental health services, such as men's support groups and counselors with greater knowledge of the needs of male sexual assault victims. Among the civilian experts we talked with, opinion was divided about the value of group-based therapy relative to individual therapy for male victims of sexual assault.

Career Support

The experience of MST among men serving in the military is strongly associated with military separation or retirement (Millegan et al., 2016). The military service providers we interviewed brought up the career support that victims may need, particularly support from their chain of command. The chain of command can support a victim's needs in a variety of ways, such as supporting access to services, which may require appointments during work hours. As one mental health care provider for the Air Force described, "Primarily what [victims] are looking for from command is just support. So, allowing them to attend medical and mental health appointments as needed; reassignment if that's something that they desire or something that everyone agrees would be in the victim's best interest. And so, primarily [they need] support."

Medical Care

Our interviews with civilian and military experts did not often address the medical care needs of victims. One civilian researcher noted that research shows that male victims experience more-violent assaults with greater risk of injury and added that this will affect "what sort of injuries and what sort of mental and physical trauma needs to be attended to."

Other Needs

Interviewees noted that male victims may also have legal, spiritual, or financial needs following an assault, but these needs were not discussed in as much detail as those previously described. In addition, military service providers specifically commented on victims' concerns about privacy, which we discuss more later.

Meeting Male Victim Needs Through Provider Preparation

Male victims often seek help for a variety of individualized needs, ranging from short-term advocacy and medical care to longer-term mental health support. Military service providers working in the sexual assault, medical, mental health, chaplaincy, and legal fields may already have training to support female victims that can be readily translated to care for male victims. In other cases, additional training in addressing the unique needs of male victims or in ensuring a sensitive, gender-specific approach toward men may be necessary.

Researchers recommend that the curriculum used to train military service providers include factual information about male sexual assault and address common myths about sexual assault against men and women (Anderson and Quinn, 2009; Kassing and Prieto, 2003). If service providers build a factual foundation of information about male sexual assault and understand the potential impact of false beliefs on male victims, they will be in a better position to counter the harmful false narratives that victims may believe about themselves (e.g., "I should have been able to stop it") and that others might believe about them (Davies, 2002). Researchers have also recommended ways that service providers should interact with male sexual assault victims. For example, researchers recommend establishing good rapport when a victim initially comes forward and suggest using normalizing statements, such as "Everyone takes time to deal with an assault" (Tomlinson and Harrison, 1998, p. 721).

Among the military service providers we spoke to about service provider preparation, most believed that individuals in their profession were either somewhat informed or well informed about sexual assault against men in the military.4 However, this was not consistent across all professions. Specifically, only two chaplains believed that those in the chaplaincy were somewhat informed or well informed about assisting male victims. In response to being asked how well prepared military chaplains were to serve male victims, an Army chaplain stated, "I think I could sell it very short and say not very. And I think that's true from a models standpoint. We're not taught any models anywhere in the Army for modalities for treating survivors of sexual assault."

Among military service providers who discussed the extent to which their training addressed male sexual assault, interviewees provided mixed responses. Almost half of those who responded recalled that their training provided either some information or a great deal of information on male sexual assault. However, slightly more than half of those who responded recalled that their training provided little or no such information. Most service providers who addressed training needs believed that more training on male sexual assault would be helpful.

Reporting and Help-Seeking Among Male Sexual Assault Victims

Following a sexual assault, victims make a series of decisions about whether to disclose the assault and to whom. They may choose to reach out to informal support persons, such as friends and family, or they may want or need assistance from formal support persons, such as sexual assault advocates, health care providers, and mental health counselors. Some victims may choose to involve the criminal justice system by reporting the crime or applying for a restraining order against the perpetrator. For civilians, each of these decisions can be made relatively independently. For military members, this is also true, with the exception that involving the military criminal justice system requires also involving the chain of command. U.S. military personnel who experience a sexual assault and choose to report it officially may file either a restricted or an unrestricted report. A restricted report is a confidential report that allows victims to access advocate support and medical and mental health care. Filing an unrestricted report allows the victim to access all the same services that a restricted report allows; in addition, filing an unrestricted report begins a criminal investigation, and the sexual assault report is disclosed to the victim's chain of command.

Likelihood of Reporting and Seeking Support

Estimates suggest that only 15 percent of military male sexual assault victims file a report (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). Data published in 2017 show that, of victims who did report, 31 percent filed a restricted report, 55 percent filed an unrestricted report, and 15 percent were not sure what type of report they filed (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). These findings are consistent with reporting among civilians. Although civilians can report to law enforcement without their employer being notified, the majority of civilian male sexual assault victims choose not to involve the criminal justice system (Pino and Meier, 1999).

Although victims who sought the services of our interviewees were, by definition, receptive to their services, the military service providers we spoke with described some variability in the degree to which victims were willing to seek care from other service providers. It was common for the military service providers we spoke with to indicate that they often provide referrals for services outside their specialty area.

Five out of the seven civilian experts who commented on this topic noted that male victims' reluctance to report or access services is a key challenge to connecting them to resources. Several indicated that, even among individuals seeking treatment for sexual assault–related conditions, there may be distrust of this treatment or of other suggested resources.

Gender Differences in Reporting and Help-Seeking

Servicewomen who experience a sexual assault are significantly more likely to file a report (31 percent) than are servicemen (15 percent) (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017). Both the civilian experts and military service providers we spoke with perceived that reporting was less common among men who had been sexually assaulted relative to women, and men may be less receptive than women to following up with resources.

Amount of Time Victims Wait to Report

When queried, most of the civilian experts we spoke with (six out of seven who responded) indicated that there is a wide range or too much variability across individuals to provide a reasonable estimate on gender differences in the amount of time individuals wait to report. Most military service providers who made a comparison did not perceive a gender difference in time to report among the male and female victims. They did, however, note that victims may wait to report until they are in a location that is away from their perpetrator. When commenting on trends in male sexual assault reporting, one provider responsible for sexual assault response in the Air Force said, "Instead of being on site or on station where the individual [perpetrator] was," the victim "waited until they went [on temporary duty] or deployed and then reported because they weren't where the individual was."

Predictors of Reporting and Help-Seeking

Greater severity of sexual assault appears to be associated with greater odds that male victims will seek help. Specifically, male victims are more likely to seek help when the perpetrator used threats during the incident and the victim believed he was at risk of being physically injured (Masho and Alvanzo, 2009). Among servicemen who experienced a sexual assault in the past year and who chose to report it, the most common motivations for reporting were to stop the offender from hurting others (45 percent) or themselves again (47 percent) (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017), or because they believed it was their civil or military duty to report (41 percent) (Severance, Debus, and Davis, 2017).

The military service providers we interviewed discussed several motivating factors for victims' reporting, including a desire to obtain justice, to prevent or stop an assault from happening to others, and to access certain rights or services. The providers also mentioned encouragement from others to report the assault; the assault having negative effects on the victim's life (e.g., intimate relationships); and, for some, unintentional reporting as a consequence of discussing the assault with a mandated reporter (e.g., a commander) or colleagues. Of these, the largest number of providers discussed the victim's desire to access rights or services as a motivator for reporting.

Barriers to Reporting and Help-Seeking

There are several reasons that some sexual assault victims choose not to report an assault or not to seek services or support following an assault. In some cases, the victim may not be personally aware of the barriers. For example, victims who do not label the incident as a sexual assault may not be aware that this is preventing them from accessing services that could help them. In other cases, the decision whether to report is based on the victim's calculus about likely outcomes. If sexual assault victims believe that their report will not be believed or acted upon; that they will be shamed, harmed, or retaliated against for reporting; or that the system cannot protect their confidentiality, many will decide that not disclosing will protect their interests better than reporting would. Notably, servicemen who indicate being penetrated or touched on their private areas during a hazing assault are unlikely to categorize the event as "sex."5 Because their perpetrator(s) may not have been sexually aroused during the incident, the victims might not classify what happened to them as "sexual assault."

In addition, servicemen may lack confidence in the military system and, therefore, may not report. The military service providers we interviewed commented on this lack of confidence in the system and the common fear among male victims that they will not be believed even if they do come forward. One Navy mental health care provider noted, "For men, I don't think they even think they'll be believed . . . . If they're gay, they think that, 'oh, everyone is going to think it was consensual.' And then if they're straight, then they think, 'oh, everyone is going to think that really I'm gay, and I really wanted it.' . . . Whether they're gay or straight, it doesn't seem to matter. They both feel like they're somehow going to be judged to be participants in it and willing participants in it."

Many sexual assault victims also choose not to report their assault or not to seek advocacy, medical care, or mental health care services because they believe that there will be negative consequences for doing so. Military service providers mentioned victim concerns about possible disciplinary actions for collateral misconduct (e.g., underage drinking prior to the assault) and emphasized worry about the impact of reporting on military careers.

Among U.S. servicemen, stereotypes about masculinity, including views of men as sexually assertive and powerful, and men's beliefs in male sexual assault myths may hinder reporting and help-seeking among victims (Castro et al., 2015; Morris et al., 2014). The military service providers we interviewed noted that military victims' self-blame, embarrassment, and shame are significant barriers to reporting and connecting them to services, and the providers identified embarrassment as a particularly potent barrier for male victims.

Further, evidence suggests that barriers to reporting and help-seeking, for both veterans and active-duty servicemembers, include the desire to maintain one's privacy and a lack of confidence in the confidentiality of medical, mental health, or other services (Turchik, McLean, et al., 2013). Privacy concerns were cited as a common barrier to reporting and help-seeking by the military service providers we interviewed.

Finally, some researchers have proposed that low rates of male sexual assault reporting in the U.S. military may be related to a perceived code of silence regarding these experiences and concern that reporting may be seen as betraying one's unit, particularly if the perpetrator or perpetrators are part of the unit (Castro et al., 2015). It is also notable that sexual assault is one of the few events that is exempt from military guidance to resolve conflict "at the lowest possible level." For example, even service members who are sexually harassed are encouraged to resolve the conflict directly or as low in their own military chain of command as possible. In a culture that trains individuals to prioritize direct conflict resolution, it may be psychologically difficult for male sexual assault victims to elevate their complaint even though they are allowed by policy to do so.

Strategies to Improve Reporting and Help-Seeking

One avenue for promoting help-seeking among male servicemembers who have experienced sexual assault is to dispel myths that those in the U.S. military community may believe regarding male sexual assault. To do so, researchers suggest including examples of male sexual assault survivors in educational materials (O'Brien, Keith, and Shoemaker, 2015). These materials should also include accurate information about sexual assault against men and women to counteract the inaccurate myths that some servicemembers may believe (Turchik and Edwards, 2012).

In addition, if the military provides training and educational materials that include male sexual assault victims, male servicemembers who experience sexual assault may not only be more willing to seek help following an assault but may also be more willing to report their assault through official channels (O'Brien, Keith, and Shoemaker, 2015; Scarce, 1997; Turchik and Edwards, 2012). However, if victims perceive that those to whom they report will react negatively or with disbelief, they may be unlikely to report being sexually assaulted. To promote reporting, male sexual assault victims must know that the professionals to whom they disclose will not express negative attitudes toward them or disbelief in their account of the assault (Javaid, 2017).

Improving Knowledge and Correcting Misperceptions About Male Sexual Assault Victims

Much of the research on male sexual assault has specifically considered public perceptions of such assault, including false and prejudicial beliefs, and the potential impact of these perceptions on male victims (Davies and Rogers, 2006; Light and Monk-Turner, 2009).

How Male Sexual Assault Victims Are Perceived

As suggested previously, among all military sexual assault victims, approximately half are men (Morral, Gore, and Schell, 2015). Nonetheless, male sexual assault victims continue to be underrecognized and underserved for a variety of reasons (Castro et al., 2015; Turchik and Edwards, 2012). During our interviews, we asked civilian experts and military service providers their thoughts about how the general population and general military population perceived male victims of sexual assault.

Among military service providers, opinions were mixed about whether the general military population had an adequate understanding that men can be victims of sexual assault. Although male sexual assault is addressed in military sexual assault prevention training, some military providers believed that servicemembers maintain their stereotypes regarding male sexual assault even after receiving this training. In our discussions with research experts on civilian sexual assault, all of the experts who offered a comparison of the general public's understanding of male sexual assault (six) agreed that the public has greater knowledge or understanding of sexual assaults against women than of those perpetrated against men.

Reduced reporting among men, as well as limited public understanding, may keep the population of male victims more hidden than the population of female victims. The lack of public exposure to men who have survived a sexual assault may explain, in part, some individuals' acceptance of myths about sexual assault against men. Sexual assault myths, also known as rape myths, include false beliefs about sexual assault and beliefs that hold victims responsible for the assault while justifying the actions of the perpetrators (Chapleau, Oswald, and Russell, 2008).

Perceptions of Campaigns to Educate Servicemembers About Male Sexual Assault

Given evidence that servicemembers may not recognize that male sexual assault can occur and may have other misconceptions about such assaults, it seems clear that efforts to improve this population's understanding are needed. In the published literature, researchers have advocated for education that would dispel myths about sexual assault against both men and women (Turchik and Edwards, 2012) and have encouraged inclusion of examples of male sexual assault survivors in educational materials (O'Brien, Keith, and Shoemaker, 2015). The U.S. military services provide annual sexual assault prevention and response training to all servicemembers (see, for example, DoD, 2013), and it appears to increase knowledge of available support services and protocols (Holland, Rabelo, and Cortina, 2014).

In our interviews, we queried the perceived efficacy of outreach efforts. Most service providers who responded to this question indicated that they believed that the outreach campaigns were effective. The providers often noted that they believed that the campaigns had promoted sexual assault awareness or sexual assault reporting in the military population. However, opinions about the efficacy of efforts were not universal. Ten interviewees indicated that they perceived the campaigns as only somewhat effective, and eight noted that they were not certain how effective the campaigns were.

Interviewees' Suggestions on How to Improve Education Campaigns Addressing Male Sexual Assault

The civilian experts we interviewed provided a range of recommendations for improving sexual assault outreach campaigns. Two out of the six civilian experts who commented on this topic noted that there are lessons to be learned from successful safety and public health campaigns that have shifted societal norms. Discussing the recommendations that messaging address myths about male victims and that research support is necessary, one interviewee described the potential value of aligning conceptions of masculinity with the courage required to come forward as a survivor.

With respect to educating the military public about male sexual assault in particular, military service providers suggested, among other options, providing servicemembers with specific information about the characteristics of male sexual assaults and developing outreach materials that specifically address such assaults.

Recommendations

Information from previous research and our interviews with experts and military service providers suggest several potential avenues for DoD to consider as part of its efforts to improve prevention and response to sexual assaults against male victims. In this section, we provide several recommendations that draw from this previous research and our interviews.

Better educate military service providers on how to provide gender-responsive support to male sexual assault victims.

Previous research and interview results suggest that military service providers who might interact with male sexual assault victims should receive training on how to assist these individuals. This training should inform service providers of the concerns and needs of male victims, including feelings of shame, feelings of self-blame, confusion regarding sexual identity, perceived loss of masculinity, and concerns over privacy. Training should also provide a grounding in the common experiences of male victims and the variance in male victim thoughts and actions following an assault, as well as information that counters commonly held male sexual assault myths. In addition, the training should include practice and role-play. This would give service providers some practice talking about the topic and the opportunity to receive feedback from a trainer about areas of strength and areas requiring additional practice.

Promote male victim reporting by ensuring that reporting is safe and confidential.

An issue raised in previous research and during our interviews with experts and service providers is that the majority of male sexual assault victims are disinclined to report. In the military, this can include a disinclination to file restricted or unrestricted reports. These reports are connected to the availability of a variety of services for victims. However, reporting is also perceived to be related to a considerable risk of social or professional retaliation (Morral, Gore, and Schell, 2015) and potential harm to the individual's career. In other words, victims make an individual calculus that weighs the benefits of reporting against the risks, and many decide that the risks are too considerable and the benefits too limited. Therefore, improving reporting rates will need to be a two-pronged approach. First, the reporting system must be improved to ensure that reassurances that reporting will not lead to retaliation or career harm are true. Second, male victims should be encouraged to report. As discussed later, training and education might assist servicemembers with identifying sexual assault and may promote reporting.

Change outreach to better address the needs and concerns of male sexual assault victims.

Additional outreach campaigns that are targeted specifically to male sexual assault victims, rather than those that are gender-neutral or targeted to female victims, might better promote male victim reporting and help-seeking, as suggested by several experts and service providers. Male victims who feel shame, perceive stigma, and experience doubts about their masculinity may find it challenging to absorb the information from a brochure or poster that primarily depicts women. In addition, reaching out to a sexual assault response coordinator or mental health care provider appears to be too high a hurdle for many male victims. To address this barrier, campaigns for men could emphasize services that do not require in-person appointments.

When educating servicemembers on sexual assault prevention and response, use an engaging format that includes information on the characteristics of male sexual assault.

Based on the information provided by our interviewees, it is not clear whether additional sexual assault prevention and response training sessions that address only male sexual assault are needed. However, substantial portions of the training and education provided to servicemembers should specifically address male sexual assault. In particular, training and education should include detailed information regarding the characteristics of male sexual assault among servicemembers, which may reference the occurrence of sexual assault during acts of hazing. To dispel common myths, education and training should focus on providing and reinforcing accurate information about the characteristics and experiences of victims.

Educate commanders on how to respond to male sexual assault and how to interact with male victims.

To better address the needs of male sexual assault victims and their concerns regarding stigma, commanders should receive training that specifically addresses the sexual assault of male servicemembers. This training content should include common characteristics of male sexual assault in the military, needs and concerns of male sexual assault victims, and appropriate and inappropriate ways to interact with and assist these victims. This training should also emphasize the importance of maintaining victim privacy and confidentiality.

Consider development and evaluation of additional counseling services that address the mental health care needs of male sexual assault victims in the military.

Service providers we interviewed suggested that DoD could devote more resources to the development and implementation of counseling resources for male sexual assault victims in the military. Potential counseling services that DoD could consider developing, implementing, and evaluating include small, structured support groups with male sexual assault victims in the military; increased use of online support groups or telephone-based support groups for such victims; and longer available duty hours of installation clinics.

Support additional research that addresses the effects of training, outreach, and services addressing male sexual assault.

When implementing a new effort or modifying a current effort to better address male sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces, DoD should devote time and resources to evaluating the impact and efficacy of these efforts. Overall, systematic data collection and analysis can provide information about which elements are effective and which elements may need to be modified to better address the needs of servicemembers broadly and male sexual assault victims specifically.

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Notes

  • 1 When we use the term male sexual assault in this study, we are referencing sexual assault against men. In addition, although individuals may alternatively be referred to as survivors, we use the term victim to reference individuals who have been sexually assaulted. There is not a clear consensus on which term should be used, and, when providing assistance to individuals, service providers recommend asking each individual which term he or she prefers (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 2016).
  • 2 This study was reviewed and approved by RAND's Human Subjects Protection Committee and DoD's Research Regulatory Oversight Office.
  • 3 Review and analysis of all sexual assault prevention efforts administered across the services was outside the scope of the project.
  • 4 When we summarize interviewee comments, the terms most and majority indicate that more than half of those who commented on a specific topic or responded to a particular question provided comments that were coded as the referenced theme.
  • 5 Private areas typically include buttocks, inner thigh, breasts, groin, anus, vagina, penis, or testicles.

This research was sponsored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

RAND Health Quarterly is produced by the RAND Corporation. ISSN 2162-8254.