Cover: The Relationship Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military

The Relationship Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military

Findings from the RAND Military Workplace Study

Published Mar 2, 2021

by Terry L. Schell, Matthew Cefalu, Coreen Farris, Andrew R. Morral

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Research Questions

  1. What is the relationship between sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military?
  2. What is the cause of the association between ambient sexual harassment and sexual assault risk in the military?

This report describes analyses designed to identify how the sexual harassment of others in a service member's work environment (or ambient sexual harassment) affects his or her own risk of being sexually assaulted. The authors find that ambient sexual harassment against service women and men is strongly associated with risk of sexual assault, even after controlling for many other sexual assault risk factors (such as age, rank, marital status, and education level). Indeed, on average, service women's sexual assault risk increased by more than a factor of 1.5 when they worked in environments where the rates of ambient sexual harassment against women and men were above average, compared with the sexual assault risk for women working where the rates were below average. And service men's sexual assault risk increased by a factor of 1.8 when working in such environments.

The authors conclude that sexual assault and harassment in the military should be thought of as a single problem or as a single underlying workplace disorder. In addition, because work environments in which rates of sexual harassment are high appear to contribute to service members' risk of sexual assault, efforts to prevent sexual assault should emphasize preventing or stopping sexual harassment. Data for these analyses were drawn from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study, an independent assessment of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the U.S. military.

Key Findings

  • The study analyses demonstrate that ambient sexual harassment against service women and men is strongly associated with risk of sexual assault, even after controlling for many other sexual assault risk factors (such as age, rank, marital status, and education level).
  • The authors ruled out the possibility that the association between ambient sexual harassment and sexual assault risk is due to sexual assaults also being counted as sexual harassment. They also largely excluded the possibility that sexual assault victims have some unobserved risk factors for sexual assault that also elevate their risk of sexual harassment.
  • The authors conclude that sexual harassment and sexual assault likely are manifestations of an environmental risk factor shared by coworkers, such as command climate, unit group dynamics, or local cultural norms.
  • Work environments in which rates of sexual harassment are high appear to contribute to service members' risk of sexual assault. Thus, policy changes or educational efforts to reduce sexual harassment might not only limit this damaging workplace behavior but also have downstream effects on sexual assault prevalence.

Recommendations

  • Sexual assault and harassment in the military should be thought of as a single problem or as a single underlying workplace disorder. When potential offenders work in environments where sexual harassment is observed and unpunished, they learn that mistreating colleagues is permissible. For some, their behaviors may escalate from mistreatment that is classified as sexual harassment to abuse that is classified as sexual assault.
  • Efforts to prevent sexual assault should emphasize preventing or stopping sexual harassment. Targeting these lower-level behaviors as part of a strategy to ultimately prevent sexual assaults would allow the Defense Department to focus on behaviors that are more visible and, therefore, more easily sanctioned.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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