Reports of sexual assaults by members of the military shot-up 50% in the past year, according to the Pentagon’s annual report released last week. But that sharp increase could be a result of a vigorous campaign to make victims feel more comfortable to come forward about being sexually assaulted, officials say.
“There is no indication that this increase in reporting constitutes an increase in crime,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “We assess that this unprecedented increase is consistent with a growing confidence in the response systems.”
The campaign to raise awareness included plastering contact information for sexual assault prevention officers across military bases, especially inside bathroom stalls. And top military officers have traveled to bases around the world speaking out on the issue.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that sexual assaults are a threat to both women and men in the service, and that the Pentagon should do more to combat a culture that discourages victims from stepping forward.
In particular, Defense officials aim to encourage more men to report sexual assaults, which can be a challenge because male victims often worry that coming forward will make people think they are weak and trigger questions about their sexual orientation.
In most cases, however, assault is an issue of power of abuse rather than sexual orientation.
“There is still a misperception that this is a women’s issue and women’s crime,” said Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention office. “It’s disheartening that we have such a differential between the genders and how they are choosing to report.”
The Associated Press reports that 14% of the cases in the Pentagon report involved male victims.
The military has long struggled with the issue of victims not reporting sexual assaults. Too often, victims have said they were afraid to report incidents to ranking officers for fear of retribution, or said that their initial complaints were outright ignored.
A 2012 anonymous survey found that about 26,000 service members said they were the victim of some type of unwanted sexual contact or assault. That same survey found that, by the raw numbers, 14,000 men reported having been sexually assaulted compared to 12,000 women.
Secretary Hagel is ordering six new initiatives, including efforts to get more male victims to come forward and a review of alcohol sales and policies. He says the review must address the risks of alcohol being used as a weapon by predators.
Hagel will also press for a renewed emphasis on prevention and the need to take some of the programs various services have been conducting and use them across the military.
Those include programs that urge troops to intervene when they see a fellow service member in trouble or being harassed. There may also be an effort to work with bars and stores that sell alcohol around the bases to educate their employees, offer menus when they serve drinks and review hours of liquor sales.
Prosecutions of sexual assault perpetrators who were subject to the military justice system have also increased, increasing from 66% in 2012 to 73% in 2013 – of course, there’s still room for improvement.
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