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Research Questions

  1. What is the extent of sexual assault in the U.S. military, what is the extent of alcohol misuse, and is there evidence that these two problems are related?
  2. What have studies of civilian populations found regarding the link between alcohol misuse and sexual assault perpetration and victimization?
  3. Are these findings applicable to the military population? What characteristics potentially make this group unique relative to their civilian counterparts?
  4. What supplemental research should the U.S. Department of Defense pursue to identify the effectiveness of programs that specifically target service members to decrease alcohol misuse or sexual assaults?

On the 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey on Active Duty Service Members, 23 percent of female and 4 percent of male service members indicated that they had experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault during their military service. In addition, official numbers show no decline in sexual assaults, despite the implementation of sexual assault prevention programs across the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Alcohol misuse is also a problem in the military: One-third of active-duty service members reported binge drinking, a rate that compares unfavorably with that of their civilian counterparts. DoD has invested considerable resources in universal sexual assault prevention programs and social media campaigns, but evaluation results are not yet available, and the effectiveness of these programs is unclear. Research on civilian populations — particularly college students, who share some characteristics with junior enlisted personnel — could provide insights for DoD. For example, the research indicates a connection between alcohol and aggression, including sexual aggression. Alcohol can also have a range of effects on the risk of victimization — from a reduced awareness of risk indicators to incapacitation or unconsciousness. An extensive review of the existing research provides some guidance for how DoD can implement and evaluate efforts to reduce alcohol misuse as part of a larger strategy to reduce the incidence of sexual assault among members of the armed forces.

Key Findings

Sexual Assault and Alcohol Misuse Are Ongoing Problems in the U.S. Military

  • Sexual assaults among U.S. service members have not declined despite the implementation of prevention programs across the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
  • Alcohol misuse is common in the military: One-third of active-duty service members report binge drinking, a rate that compares unfavorably with that of their civilian counterparts.

Alcohol Abuse Has Been Linked to Sexual Aggression and Heightened Vulnerability to Sexual Assault

  • Studies show that alcohol use is causally linked to increased aggression in young men — particularly among men who are predisposed to behaving aggressively — and that may include an increased risk of sexual aggression.
  • Alcohol intoxication increases the risk that men will misperceive women's sexual intent, which, in turn, is linked with an increased likelihood of sexual assault perpetration.
  • Sexual assault victimization occurs as a result of someone else's actions rather than something the victim does. Thus, alcohol increases vulnerability only in a setting with a nearby potential perpetrator.
  • When this condition is met, alcohol can have a range of effects on the risk of victimization — from a reduced awareness of risk indicators to incapacitation or unconsciousness.

Efforts That Target Alcohol Misuse May Contribute to a Military Sexual Assault Prevention Strategy

  • The most extensive body of research on the connection between alcohol misuse and sexual assault comes from studies of college students, a group that shares some similarities with junior enlisted military personnel.
  • DoD efforts to reduce sexual assault in the military could benefit from findings from these studies, including evidence of what is effective and what is not.

Recommendations

  • DoD should sponsor research to identify connections between alcohol misuse and sexual assault in the military context. For example, available data on military sexual assaults do not provide the detail necessary to determine who was using alcohol (the perpetrator, the victim, or both), the amount of alcohol consumed, or the role of alcohol in the assault.
  • In addition to its continued efforts to evaluate military sexual assault prevention programs, DoD should invest in research on alcohol misuse prevention programming as a strategy by which to also prevent military sexual assaults. Civilian research suggests that prevention programs focused on reducing alcohol misuse also reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Such a link may be true for military sexual assaults as well.
  • To conduct valid effectiveness trials, decisionmakers should first implement novel programs at selected bases rather than service-wide. Although there may be pressure to roll out programs universally, doing so would preclude an evaluation of effectiveness, as there would be no appropriate comparison group by which to benchmark the effect of the program on the incidence of sexual assault.

This research was 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.

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