A Pentagon study released yesterday shows that reports of sexual assaults involving an active-duty service member (as attacker OR victim) rose 11 percent last year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of military sexual assaults — defined as any unwanted touching, from groping to rape — has gone up, but that reporting has increased. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however: Reported assaults are estimated to be only 10 to 20 percent of those actually committed.
As Helen Benedict noted in the Fall 2008 issue of Ms., the atmosphere in the military makes it fertile ground for sexual assault:
Women are routinely degraded from boot camp on with obscene insults, relentless staring, sexist rhymes, pornography and sexual harassment. Servicewomen face the most retrograde attitudes imaginable, while at the same time finding themselves trapped in a rigid hierarchy that paralyzes their ability to seek justice and punishes them if they try.
The Army had the most assaults reported, at 2.6 per 1,000 soldiers, the Air Force least at 1.4 per 1,000. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith attributed the uptick in reports to a policy instituted in 2005 that allows “restricted” reporting, in which the victim can get medical and mental health but the case doesn’t enter the criminal justice system. That allows the victim to remain anonymous and thus protected from reprisals, but of course it also allows the perpetrator to get a free pass and perhaps assault again.
In the upcoming Spring issue of Ms., blogger Natalie Wilson will report further on the issue of military sexual assaults and the culture which enables it, showing how it trickles down into civilian culture and how a groundbreaking lawsuit is tackling the problem.
Follow Ms. coverage of sexual violence issues here.