Cover: Perceived Retaliation Against Military Sexual Assault Victims

Perceived Retaliation Against Military Sexual Assault Victims

Published Mar 29, 2021

by Coreen Farris, Terry L. Schell, Lisa H. Jaycox, Robin L. Beckman

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Research Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of sexual assault incidents, victims, and perpetrators that increase risk for perceived retaliation against service women who are sexually assaulted?
  2. What is the relationship between disclosure choices and retaliation?

In response to the high and stable rates of perceived retaliation against military sexual assault victims, in 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced new procedures that would better prepare commanders, junior officers, and supervisors to "reduce the potential for retaliation."

This resolve was echoed by the U.S. Congress, which included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 a directive to create a comprehensive strategy to prevent retaliation. The resultant DoD Retaliation Prevention and Response Strategy includes the goal of "creating a culture intolerant of retaliation" and plans to "hold supervisors and leaders appropriately accountable for preventing, detecting, and addressing retaliatory behavior." To guide this effort, it may be helpful to better understand the situations in which retaliation against military sexual assault victims is most likely to occur. Although fear of retaliation is often identified as a barrier to reporting sexual assault, little is known about the predictors of retaliation when it does occur. This research documents the characteristics of sexual assault incidents, victims, and perpetrators that increase risk for perceived retaliation against service women who have been sexually assaulted. Because telling others about the sexual assault increases the number of people who know about the assault and thus may retaliate against the victim, the authors also explored the relationship between disclosure choices and retaliation and subsequently controlled for disclosure choices when identifying risk factors for retaliation.

Key Findings

Perceived retaliation against victims is highest when an official report is filed, but silence does not preclude retaliation

  • While perceived retaliation (social and professional) was highest among female victims who filed an official report, risk did not drop to zero among those who told no one or disclosed only to covered reporters.
  • Failing to measure retaliation against victims who do not file an unrestricted report will exclude those for whom retaliation was successful in preventing the victim from reporting the crime.

Perceived professional retaliation was associated with workplace hazing and authority; perceived social retaliation was associated with multiple offenders and fellow service members

  • Among female sexual assault victims, perceived professional retaliation was associated with assaults that were hazing-related, occurred in the workplace, occurred when the victim was not using alcohol, and were perpetrated by multiple, familiar, and/or powerful offenders.
  • Perceived professional retaliation was a higher risk when the perpetrator had authority over the victim via the chain of command.
  • Assaults perpetrated by multiple, familiar, and or/or military offenders and assaults occurring in the workplace were associated with perceived social retaliation.


  • Leaders, providers, and advocates who work with victims should be aware of the markers of retaliation risk so that they are better prepared to monitor the environment and intervene to prevent and respond to retaliatory actions against sexual assault victims.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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