Cover: Risk Factors for Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military

Risk Factors for Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military

Findings from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study

Published May 24, 2021

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


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Research Question

  1. To what extent are various factors, including birth demographics, service experience, and organizational characteristics, important predictors of risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment among U.S. service members?

This report describes analyses designed to identify service member and environmental characteristics that are associated with service members' risk of sexual assault or sexual harassment. The researchers find that experiencing pre-service sexual assault, being younger, and being single were all strong predictors of experiencing sexual assault and sexual harassment. Service history and unit environment characteristics were also associated with risk, although these effects were smaller. Risk factors for men and women and for sexual assault and sexual harassment were strongly correlated, suggesting that a common set of risk factors underlie these experiences for men and women. The authors conclude the report with recommendations for how the Department of Defense (DoD) can use the findings to modify programs and training that address sexual assault and 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

  • One of the striking findings from the analysis was the high degree of similarity in the predictors across genders and across sexual assault and sexual harassment outcomes.
  • Besides being female, experiencing a pre-service sexual assault was the single biggest predictor of past-year sexual assault among service members. Being younger and being single were also among the strongest predictors of sexual assault and harassment.
  • White men were generally at lower risk than men in other racial groups for sexual assault and harassment; however, white women were generally at higher risk than women in other racial groups were.
  • After the authors controlled for factors associated with risk over which the military has no control, branch of service, entry type, and pay grade predicted sexual harassment risk for both service women and men.
  • Prediction of sexual assault in the military could be substantially improved by including sexual orientation in the risk models.


  • DoD should use risk models to inform targeted prevention and response activities.
  • Through outreach and victim assistance, DoD should strengthen support to service members who were sexually assaulted prior to joining the military.
  • DoD should conduct research to understand the association between pre-military and recent sexual assault.
  • DoD should investigate why risk varies by service branch, occupation group, Armed Forces Qualification Test score, and other characteristics.
  • Future models of risk could substantially improve upon those described in this report with the addition of known risk factors that were unavailable at the time this study was conducted (such as whether the service member belongs to a sexual or gender minority) and with the inclusion of more-detailed information about service members' living and work environments (such as leadership climate and workplace hostility).

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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