Sexual assault runs counter to every fiber of the U.S. military and DOD officials are “disheartened and frustrated” with the data in the annual report on sexual assault in the military that showed the incidents rose.
Elizabeth Van Winkle, the executive director of DOD’s office of force resiliency, said the prevalence of sexual assault in the military rose in 2018, with about 20,500 service members — 13,000 women, 7,500 men — reporting a sexual assault. This is up from about 14,900 in 2016.
Van Winkle’s career has been intertwined in trying to end sexual assault and is disturbed by the rise in incidents. But, she said, “I am not without hope.”
DOD’s leaders are committed to eliminating sexual assault, emphasizing prevention and accaountability, she said. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan has approved recommendations from his Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigations Task Force. “These actions will improve our military justice system and enhance commanders’ abilities to maintain good order and discipline in the ranks,” she said in a briefing for the Pentagon press this morning.
One recommendation is to make sexual harassment a stand-alone crime. “This sends a strong message to the force of our expectations in this space, and the consequences of failure to readiness,” Van Winkle said.
The defense secretary also approved a number of prevention actions, including new unit climate assessment tools and oversight mechanisms that will help leaders better understand the extent of the challenges.
Sexual assaults against men remained virtually unchanged, but grew for women. Women from 17-24 years old were the most at risk. Overall, 6.2% of servicewomen of all ranks reported being sexually assaulted in 2018 and .7% of servicemen. About 9.1% of junior enlisted women indicated experiencing a sexual assault in 2018.
Van Winkle said these rates are a “statistically significant increase” over what was reported during DOD’s 2016 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey for Active Duty Members, when 4.3% of servicewomen from all ranks — and 6.6% of junior enlisted women — indicated having been sexually assaulted in the year before the survey.
Sexual harassment is a leading factor for poor unit climates and part of a continuum of behaviors that may be a precursor for sexual assault. Some 24.2% of women in the military were sexually harassed and 6.3% of men.
About half of all sexual assault events involved alcohol, according to the report, and most of the perpetrators were the same rank or slightly higher.
Officials said they do not know exactly what is driving the rise, but surmised changes in social media and in dating patterns could have something to do with it.
“The results of this report are not acceptable by any standard,” Van Winkle said. “We will learn from what our women and men told us this year and adjust our strategies. I remain optimistic that we will course correct. There is no higher calling than to serve in our military. Because of our members unmatched service and patriotism, they remain the core advantage against our enemies. Our absolute dedication to their well-being must be no less than the commitment they made when they stepped forward to volunteer.”