Cover: Effects of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment on Separation from the U.S. Military

Effects of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment on Separation from the U.S. Military

Findings from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study

Published Feb 8, 2021

by Andrew R. Morral, Miriam Matthews, Matthew Cefalu, Terry L. Schell, Linda Cottrell


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Research Questions

  1. What are the effects of sexual assault and harassment on separations from the U.S. military and, by extension, the effects on military costs and readiness?
  2. Are service members who appeared to have been sexually assaulted or harassed more likely to leave the military of their own volition or be discharged for reasons associated with their failure to meet expectations for their performance or conduct?

Sexual assault and sexual harassment have a variety of consequences harmful to those who are targeted, including psychological and physical health effects. In addition, sexual assault and harassment may have deleterious and costly consequences for employers if the abuse results in higher turnover or low morale and productivity. This report describes data analyses designed to assess the effects of sexual assault and sexual harassment on service members' decisions to separate from the military. The researchers found that exposure to sexual assault (as determined by survey responses) doubled the odds that a member would separate from the military in the ensuing 28 months. Over this period, an estimated 2,000 more separations occurred than would be expected had members not been sexually assaulted, and 8,000 separations (or roughly 4 percent of all separations) were similarly associated with sexual harassment. Secondary analyses demonstrated that separations associated with sexual assault and harassment were disproportionately voluntary — that is, the service members were not discharged for problem behaviors or other failures to adhere to standards or expectations in the military. These findings suggest that sexual assault and harassment are costly for both the affected service members and the services and that they harm military readiness. The report concludes with recommendations for how the Department of Defense could use this study's findings to reduce sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the separations associated with these experiences. Data for these analyses are drawn from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study, which invited close to 560,000 U.S. service members to share their experiences.

Key Findings

  • The services are losing at least 16,000 manpower years prematurely subsequent to sexual assault and sexual harassment in a single year. Furthermore, members who separate from service because of sexual assault or sexual harassment are likely forgoing considerable compensation relative to continuing their service; indeed, some victims likely give up hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings.
  • Our results suggest that separations following sexual assaults are disproportionally voluntary, rather than involuntary, for both men and women, and this tendency to leave voluntarily after experiencing sexual assault or harassment is even greater for men.
  • Sexual assault and sexual harassment are associated with larger numbers of men than women separating from the services, although such abuse affects a larger proportion of women than of men.
  • Because most sexual assaults of service members involve unwanted touching by a coworker, almost all of them also count as instances of sexual harassment. But members who were sexually harassed but not sexually assaulted also had an elevated risk of separation.
  • Estimates of separations associated with sexual assault and sexual harassment are likely underestimates. The authors assessed the effects of sexual assault and sexual harassment experiences that occurred only in fiscal year 2014 and examined only separations that occurred in a 28-month period following that. Thus, the estimates represent only a fraction of all of the sexual assault and sexual harassment experiences during the careers of the service members in the cohort.


  • Prioritize prevention and response to sexual harassment.
  • Ensure that training and prevention materials highlight that men and women are victims.
  • Continue investigating how sexual assault reporting affects separation risk.

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).

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