Cover: Countering Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military

Countering Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military

Lessons from RAND Research

Published Jul 19, 2021

by Joie D. Acosta, Matthew Chinman, Amy L. Shearer

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Research Questions

  1. What actions has DoD taken to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment behaviors?
  2. What are the challenges that DoD faces in reducing such behaviors?
  3. How can DoD improve prevention of sexual assault sexual harassment in the military?

Despite the significant steps that the Department of Defense (DoD) has been taking for more than a decade to address sexual assault and sexual harassment in the U.S. military, these behaviors remain a persistent problem. To reduce rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment—and not just respond to them—efforts should focus on the current state of prevention for these problem behaviors within the services. The authors of this report synthesize findings and recommendations from the RAND Corporation's extensive research in this area.

Eight RAND researchers—all subject-matter experts—drew from years of empirical study through RAND's multiple federally funded research and development centers to describe challenges that have slowed or stagnated progress toward addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment and examine efforts that have been made to reverse that trend.

The authors highlight actions that will help DoD deter sexual assault and sexual harassment by holding perpetrators and leaders accountable and by equipping service members and leaders with the tools to prevent problem behaviors. The authors recommend hiring dedicated and well-trained prevention staff (prevention is often a collateral duty) and then discuss future research priorities that would allow DoD to set the standard for excellence in sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention.

Key Findings

Without bold action, sexual assault and sexual harassment will continue to have negative consequences for the military

  • One in 16 women and one in 143 men are estimated to experience sexual assault within DoD. At the service academies, one in six women and one in 29 men experience sexual assault.
  • Estimates for sexual harassment are one in four women and one in 16 men.
  • Deterrence alone is insufficient to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Most incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment within DoD go unreported

  • In 2018, there were 6,053 reported sexual assaults, compared with the estimated prevalence from surveys suggesting that over 20,000 service members were sexually assaulted.
  • In 2019, the military services and the National Guard Bureau processed and investigated over 1,600 formal and informal complaints of sexual harassment. However, in a survey of active duty service members in 2018, approximately 119,000 individuals reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous 12 months.
  • Social and professional retaliation against victims is perceived to be common.

There are serious gaps in most prevention infrastructure elements

  • The services' annual sexual assault prevention and response training does not employ best practices documented from the prevention literature.
  • Service branches' self-assessments of prevention efforts found that activities focused more on building awareness than skills, which is inconsistent with evidence-based prevention.
  • Except for the Air Force, there are no personnel across DoD institutions or at the service academies whose sole job is implementing and evaluating sexual assault or sexual harassment prevention activities.


  • Service members should have multiple channels to report sexual assault and sexual harassment that will result in timely action, including confidential channels that exist outside their chain of command.
  • All sexual harassment claims, including those that are not officially reported to an equal opportunity office, should be centrally documented and accessible at the service-headquarters level.
  • Effective systems should exist for tracking allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment throughout a service member's career.
  • Commanders should levy immediate, appropriate sanctions for low-level unprofessional conduct before it escalates.
  • Commanders should be evaluated, in part, by how they manage sexual assault and sexual harassment claims within their commands.
  • Consideration should be given to removing Equal Opportunity Advisors and Command Managed Equal Opportunity managers from the same chain of command as victims and offenders.
  • There should be an infrastructure that fosters the implementation of effective, lasting, and proactive prevention efforts.
  • Leadership should be trained in and held accountable for sound prevention practices.
  • Prevention practices that reflect the best evidence available and involve comprehensive planning and continuous evaluation should be implemented.
  • The services and installations should receive sufficient funding and personnel for prevention.
  • DoD should conduct research on mutable drivers of risk by examining units with unusually high—or low—documented cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment; new prevention approaches that target command climate or risk factors of multiple problem behaviors; and unique risks faced by service members who describe themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning for sexual assault and sexual harassment.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary 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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