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Research Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of reported sexual assaults committed by Air Force military personnel?
  2. What are the demographic characteristics of suspects and victims?
  3. What events and suspect behaviors precede the sexual assaults?
  4. In what kinds of situations and settings are offenders sexually assaulting others, and what is the nature of the sexual assaults?
  5. What do offenders do and say after the sexual assaults?
  6. How do suspects and victims describe to authorities what occurred?
  7. Do these situations, settings, and offender behaviors point to opportunities for the Air Force to improve its prevention and response efforts?

To assist Air Force efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault, this report focuses on providing a better understanding of sexual assaults committed by airmen, including suspect characteristics and behaviors, the suspect's relationship to the victim, victim characteristics, the settings and circumstances of sexual assaults, and behavior and justifications following sexual assaults. To do so, the researchers analyzed investigation and court-martial records from closed cases of convicted and other alleged Air Force sexual assault offenders. The cases included offenders who took advantage of norms of group socializing with alcohol, trust in fellow airmen, and responsible drinking and driving to create situations that facilitate sexual assault. Some victims and suspects were confused about whether certain behaviors constitute sexual assault, such as first attempts to initiate sexual activities with dates or friends, unwanted acts that followed consensual sexual behavior, or actions of highly intoxicated individuals. Notably, although far less common, reported offenders who sexually assaulted their spouses had typically also harmed others, tended to have behavioral and emotional problems, and had previously caught the attention of Air Force authorities. After a sexual assault, offenders may apologize and attempt to persuade the victim or others to forgive them and not report them to authorities. This report concludes by describing how these sexual assault data complement other sources and by providing recommendations related to the themes identified in this analysis.

Key Findings

The Case Analysis of Reported Sexual Assault Perpetration by Airmen Highlighted Several Key Themes That Have Implications for Air Force Policies and Programs

  • Victims and suspects showed some confusion about whether certain incidents constituted sexual assault and should thus be reported. Examples include sexual assault that occurs after consensual sexual activities have begun or when previous sexual activities were consensual.
  • Although uncommon, reported offenders who sexually assaulted a spouse or intimate partner were noteworthy for often showing histories of violence or other problematic behaviors.
  • Some offenders later offer apologies or denials or make other attempts to persuade others not to report a sexual assault.
  • Norms of group socializing with alcohol often played a role in perpetration.
  • Some offenders take advantage of those who trust that they can safely get drunk with fellow airmen and share rides or sleeping space afterward to avoid drunk driving.
  • Many offenders were themselves intoxicated at the time of the sexual assault.
  • Sexual assaults by airmen outside the continental United States also typically involved alcohol.

The Observed Patterns of Behavior Are Not Unique to Airmen

  • Although offenders who are airmen may take advantage of situations and settings particular to the Air Force, elements of military culture, or their position within the organization, their general patterns of behavior also appear within the literature on sexual assault in other military organizations and, more broadly, in civilian society.


  • Develop a strategy for scrutinizing airmen engaged in significant interpersonal conflict and physical aggression to determine when the persistence of such behaviors should lead to removal from service rather than continued counseling or treatment.
  • Address specific types of activities that precede sexual assaults. For example, sponsor fun alternatives to excessive drinking for celebrations more likely to involve alcohol, such as 21st birthdays, New Year's Eve, and Saint Patrick's Day.
  • In sexual assault prevention training, address misconceptions and confusion about what constitutes sexual assault, helping airmen to apply such concepts as "consent" and "harm" to a range of scenarios, including sexual assault within relationships.
  • Also in training, discuss appropriate victim and bystander responses for addressing an offender following an incident and include scenarios in which the offender promises to change, begs for help or forgiveness, blames their behavior on alcohol, or asks to resolve the situation without reporting. Victims should understand that available resources can help them think through these situations. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize the responsibility of bystanders to report an incident and that sexual assault is not an issue they should try to resolve on their own.
  • Coordinate training and information campaigns across key stakeholders such that each references the link between sexual assault, alcohol misuse, and intimate-partner violence. Portray alcohol consumption as not only a risk factor for victimization but also one for perpetration and failed bystander intervention. Also, Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program metrics should include statistics on intimate-partner sexual assault.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Director of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program in the Office of the Vice Chief of Staff and the commander of Air Force Recruiting Service and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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