The persistent problem of sexual assault in the military

The Persistent Problem of Sexual Assault in the Military

Please Note: While we will be discussing the persistent problem of sexual assault in the military, we will not be describing specific incidents or detailed accounts. If you would like confidential support on this topic, please see our list of recommended resources at the end.  


It is one that often follows service members out of uniform and into their civilian lives as Veterans.  It is a disease we cannot seem to eradicate.  A DoJ survey found that sexual assault more than doubled in the US as a whole between 2014 and 2018.  In fact, an entire month of each year is dedicated to the awareness and eradication of it. 

We understand that this is an issue that affects men and women alike. But we want to look specifically at how it affects military women and the efforts being made to combat it.  Sexual assault is an insidious blight on every culture and community it touches.  But it is especially problematic in the military, and women are still overwhelmingly the reporters of sexual assault and harassment.  It is an issue with an immense cost—not only for the victim, but for mission readiness as well.  In both active duty and veteran settings, this is a large and complex problem that is proving difficult to resolve.

Unfortunately for both the military and veteran communities, there is so much that can be said on this topic.  But in the interest of keeping this piece to a manageable size, we will focus specifically on women in uniform.  In a future piece, we will explore how this carries over to the Veteran community, and women veterans specifically.


Everyone is likely well-aware of what sexual assault means. But to make sure we are all reading from the same page, it never hurts to check in. It can also be helpful to understand specific DoD and VA definitions if we want a clearer picture of what this means for women who served. 


Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, “sexual assault” describes a range of specific criminal activity, including:

  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Forcible sodomy
  • Aggravated or abusive sexual contact
  • Any attempts to commit these crimes 

This is a broader term the Veterans Administration uses to describe sexual assault or harassment experienced during military service.  This means any sexual activity you are involved with against your will, such as:

  • Being forced, pressured or coerced into sex
  • Receiving threats for refusing to cooperate
  • Being promised better treatment in exchange for sex
  • Not being able to give consent, such as when you are sleeping or intoxicated
  • Being touched in a sexual way that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Receiving repeated comments about your body or sexual activities

While anyone can experience sexual violence, the risk for women in the military is still almost 5x that of men. 


What makes sexual crimes especially insidious for many survivors is that the end of the event does not mean the end of the experience. This type of trauma can seriously affect a person’s physical and mental health, and the damage can linger for years.  The experiences of survivors vary, but may include a wide range of common side effects such as:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Increased risk of suicide
  • Insomnia, nightmares
  • Depression, feelings of isolation
  • Intense anger or other strong emotions  


Sexual violence is a pervasive scourge on the military.  An estimated 20,000+ service members experienced sexual assault (SA) in 2018, 13,000 of whom were women. In fact, service members most at risk continue to be women.  Sexual Assault among military women increased nearly 40% from 2016 to 2018, while staying relatively the same for men.

At the same time, an estimated three out of every four of these crimes went unreported.  Reasons for not reporting can vary. They range from wanting to forget or not wanting anyone to know, to fear of retaliation by the perpetrator or chain of command.  This fear is warranted and appears to be effective.  It is impossible to fully quantify how many victims avoid reporting due to threats of retaliation. Despite this, we do have an idea of how retaliation further victimizes those who report. 

Two out of every three women who report a sexual assault face retaliation. A majority of those allege the retaliator is in their chain of command.  Adding salt to an already stinging wound, a third of victims are discharged less than a year after reporting and are more likely to receive a bad paper discharge. And the sting does not stop there. Research shows that a bad-paper discharge can lead to higher rates of unemployment, homelessness and suicide.

In FY18, of the 5,805 unrestricted reports of SA, only 307 resulted in a trial by court-marshal, with 108 convictions for a non-consensual sex offense.  That amounts to a conviction rate of less than 2% in unrestricted reports, and only 0.5% of all estimated sexual assaults in the military for that year.  One-half of a percent.

Data from the 2020 DoD Report on Sexual Assault in the Military

On top of low reporting, convictions relating to unrestricted reports of sexual assaults have dropped by almost 60% since 2015.  Here are the really somber numbers:  In FY18, of the 5,805 unrestricted reports of SA, only 307 resulted in a trial by court-marshal, with 108 convictions for a non-consensual sex offense.  That amounts to a conviction rate of less than 2% in unrestricted reports, and only 0.5% of all estimated sexual assaults in the military for that year.  One-half of a percent.


With the exception of war, the US Military was almost exclusively a male environment until 1948; when the military officially made women permanent members. Even so, job options were extremely limited and there was a cap on how many women could enlist.  Unfortunately, gender imbalance and lingering social norms led to a deeply male-dominated culture rife with risk for the women who volunteered to serve alongside them. These women were left with little recourse if they fell victim to sexual harassment or assault. 

The the military is now a safer, more welcoming place for the growing numbers of women in uniform, thanks to dramatic improvements made over the decades. But progress has been slow and there is still much work to do. Incredibly, rape was not even tried as a crime in the military until the 1980’s—less than 40 years ago.  And the most dramatic changes have only happened in the past ten years.   

Incredibly, rape was not even tried as a crime in the military until the 1980’s—less than 40 years ago.


DoD is now required to report to Congress annually on the state of sexual assault in the US Armed Forces. Much of this report is informed by The Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA). DoD conducts this confidential survey every two years.  It asks members about their sexual assault, what happened when they reported it, plus questions on gender-related military equal opportunity violations.

Focus groups inform these reports in alternating years. Fiscal year 2019 drew feedback from 61 focus groups conducted with about 500 active duty members and first responders.  These first responders included Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, Victim Advocates, healthcare personnel, law enforcement, Military Criminal Investigative Organizations, judge advocates and chaplains.  

The Department of Defense’s stated aim is to advance a military culture free from sexual assault.  The FY19 report, just released April 30th, focuses on four main areas. These include Unit Climate, Sexual Assault Reporting, Victim Assistance and Efforts to Reduce/Stop Sexual Assault.  We found this report to be more promising than its predecessor, with more details on DoD efforts to reduce SA, assist victims, and work toward an improved military culture.


The DoD invests significantly to prevent and respond to sexual assault in the military. Their primary goals are to reduce SA and increase reporting rates of such incidents.    


This is arguably the most important place to start. More than a decade of DoD research correlates sexual assault with military workplace climate. When unit climates tolerate other forms of misconduct, the risk of SA increases. 

  • The 2019/FY18 report noted more than 24% of Active Duty women (vs. 6.3% of AD men) experienced sexual harassment. Their risk for sexual assault was 3x higher than those who had not been harassed.
  • The 2020/FY19 report showed a 10% increase in formal sexual harassment complaints from the previous year.    

Focus group feedback indicated that military culture is improving, but slowly. Participants noted that generational differences may be hindering progress toward healthier workplace climates.  The report also stated that ”male-dominated workplace culture” is slowly becoming more inclusive, but men’s and women’s perceptions of gender roles still differ, which has a negative impact on workplace and unit climate. 

Male peers may be less likely to recognize gender-based discrimination but more likely to police their language when female peers are present.  Some males also believe female service members use gender to promote faster and avoid undesirable duties. Some feel that sex-based accommodations to fitness standards are unsafe, adding to the discrimination against females. Females sometimes feel uncomfortable speaking up when they are the only woman or when no female leader is present. Females also perceive a demand to prove themselves repeatedly in the military setting, and feel they have to advocate for fair treatment, despite feeling pressured to conform to male culture.

Feedback also showed that service members still struggle to fully define what constitutes sexual harassment.  Women and men sometimes disagree on definitions; and sexually harassing behaviors are not always confronted or addressed.


On a more positive note, E-4s seem to have a special ability to achieve results with junior service members.  By setting the example and choosing which behaviors to address, E-4’s can have a direct impact on unit climate. 

Mid-level enlisted service members in general are in a great position to positively influence the behaviors of young service members. DoD determined this group should receive added focus in future efforts to stem sexual assault and harassment.  Promisingly, there seems to be movement in that direction.  Where the FY18 report focused largely on top-level policy implementation, FY19 states that mid- and low-level leadership should be appropriately prepared and held accountable for member behavior. 

The Secretary of Defense’s 2019 “Call to Action” includes ensuring new officers and enlisted leaders are prepared to help prevent and properly respond to sexual assault and harassment. In turn, the Sexual Assault Prevention Response Office (SAPRO) led a Junior Leader Working Group to help junior leaders meet this critical objective. The 2020 survey content was also updated to better address unit level strengths and weaknesses and assist leaders in addressing the problem.      


In 2005, DoD set policy to promote greater reporting of sexual assault. Since then, reporting surged from 7% in 2006 to 30% in 2018. Fifteen years into this policy, the Department acknowledges that “persistent barriers pose a challenge to continued reporting”. And victim concerns are many. These range from unhealthy command climates and fear of retaliation to confidentiality breaches and potential gossip about their case. Perhaps most importantly, focus group feedback shows that “Service members view their unit commanders as the primary drivers behind encouraging reporting, ensuring training, and providing perspective on why sexual assault is a readiness issue.”     

The “Call to Action” also directed DoD to launch The Catch a Serial Offender Program. It gives service members making a restricted report the option to provide information about their attacker to see if it matches other incidents.  If so, that member has the option to convert to unrestricted and participate in the military justice process.  Since inception, the program has received 239 reports, resulting in 5 matches so far.    

Perpetrators are infinitely more difficult to prosecute when they are successful at silencing victims. Reporting is vague on how serious the issue of retaliation is within the military. But DoD states officially that “military law and policy prohibit service members from retaliation, ostracism and maltreatment associated with protected communication, such as disclosing a sexual assault report”. The question is whether or not this position remains intact at the lowest levels—specifically, when reporting or being reported. 

In 2018, each military branch was directed to take policy-specific actions to address retaliation prevention and response.  Most included some measure of updating annual standard training for enlisted and officers.  DoD also stood up a specialized unit of the Whistleblower Investigation Team. This team focuses exclusively on the complaints of service members who are reporting or attempting to report SA. 

The 2020 report merited only one paragraph on retaliation. DoD was compiling retaliation data and working to further define their prevention and response strategy, and “standardize the training definition… to enforce the full spectrum of retaliatory behavior”.  Hopefully next year’s report will have more to say on this. 

Victim Assistance

The stated intention of DoD sexual assault response policies is to “strengthen resiliency and instill confidence in the reporting process”.  The military response system works to advocate for all service members and their adult dependents in reporting, recovery and treatment. Yet the FY18 Survey found that one in four who reached out after experiencing sexual assault were not satisfied with the response or support they received.  

Focus group data supported this, showing that more could be done to increase assistance for those seeking it. In an effort to improve, the Department worked in FY19 to better assess and train response coordinators and victim advocates, and also sought to improve professional development, continuing education and relevant resources for them. 

Additionally, DoD continues to promote the Safe Helpline to ensure service members are aware of this as a confidential, anonymous place to disclose their assault, express concerns and get information.  Use of these services increased from 2018 to 2019; from 22,000 to nearly 37,000 users.  

On an important side note, victims cannot make an official report through the Safe Helpline. Yet it is often a first step in the reporting process and a key source of support for those who might not reach out for help through direct military channels. DoD acknowledged feedback that the Safe Helpline should take reports directly, but stopped short of agreeing. They stated only that the Department will continue to look for additional ways to support victim reporting. 

Efforts to Stop Sexual Assault

While acknowledging the importance of supporting victims and holding offenders accountable, DoD currently states that sexual assault prevention must receive a greater emphasis if further progress is to be made.  From the FY18 report: “We will not be deterred from our mission to eliminate sexual assault from the military.  The approaches we employed to achieve progress over the past several years must now change.  We will not rest until all service members serve in environments of dignity and respect.” 

Focus group feedback on prevention efforts was insightful:

  • Current prevention activities focus mostly on leader’s efforts to emphasize the importance of stopping sexual assault.
  • SA prevention training can be vague, leaving trainees with unanswered questions and a misunderstanding of appropriate boundaries. 
  • Male participants noted that trainings sometimes leave them feeling targeted as the bad guy.
  • Leaders do not always know how to address or prevent gender-based discrimination. 
  • Leaders sometimes take a “check the box” approach to training, with a mission-first mentality that sidetracks an appropriate response to victims.   

Feedback from the same groups suggest that future prevention training should be more relatable and tailored to service member’s needs. This includes things like content on healthy relationships and consent, more responsible alcohol use, understanding sexual harassment gray areas, and practice/discussion of essential concepts. 


DoD acknowledged that the “increased prevalence of sexual assault indicates that the crime is a persistent challenge that does not remit easily. Risk factors for sexual assault victimization are persistent and multifaceted and require a comprehensive and systematic approach to prevention.”  Indeed, if our military is to maintain mission readiness, we must ensure a safer environment for those who defend us, and stronger, more effective repercussions against those who commit sexual crimes against their fellow service members. 

While the current DoD report on sexual assault shows promising efforts, there is still much work to be done.  Moving forward, we would like to see a stronger emphasis from the DoD on a few key issues.  Mainly:

  • Establishing more effective ways to remove barriers to reporting and ensure victim privacy
  • Implementing valuable insights gained from last year’s focus groups
  • Taking a more aggressive stance with perpetrators and those who retaliate against victims

It is imperative that DoD establish zero tolerance for criminal sexual behavior and clearly define and enforce the policies to support it—for both victim and offender—if the culture is ever to be effectively changed.


If you or a friend experienced sexual assault and wish to seek help, the following is a list of military and non-military resources that are free, confidential and available 24/7.

DoD Safe Helpline

Chat, receive information, report retaliation or call 877.995.52.47

DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response

Guidance on how to help yourself or someone else.

National Sexual Assault Hotline

800.656.HOPE (4673)

RAINN List of Additional Resources

  1. US Dept of Defense. (2020, April 30). Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from
  2. US Dept of Defense. (2019, April 26). Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health. (2010). Military Sexual Trauma Overview. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from
  4. Duplantis, Brenda. (2020, March 30). Facts on Military Sexual Trauma and Statistics. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from
  5. Morral, A., Gore, K., Schell, T., Bicksler, B., Farris, C., Ghosh-Dastidar, B., Jaycox, L., Kilpatrick, D., Kistler, S., Street, A., Tanielian, T., & Williams, K. (2015). Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military: Highlights from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

Leading image courtesy of DVIDS. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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