Is Sexual Assault Really an 'Epidemic'?

The U.S. military actually looks pretty good compared to, say, college.

Politico calls it a "scandal," Time calls it an "epidemic," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel describes it as a "scourge," and President Obama says it's "dangerous to our national security."

No, they're not talking about the spreading violence in Egypt, or hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay, or even the high military suicide rate (we've already lost interest in that). The military crisis du jour -- what Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno calls the Army's "number one priority" -- is sexual assault.

Sexual assault in the military is a genuine and serious problem, but the frantic rhetoric may be doing more harm than good. It conceals the progress the military has made in developing effective sexual assault prevention and response programs, and it distracts us from the even higher rates of sexual violence in comparable civilian populations. Ultimately, the current panic about sexual violence in the military may be less a reflection of sexual abuse trends than a reflection of broader societal anxieties about the changing role of women -- and changing attitudes toward the age-old assumption that the military is synonymous with "manliness."

Sexual assault in the military

On the face of it, there's plenty of reason for the shock and outrage about sexual assault in the military. Extrapolating from responses to an anonymous survey of servicemembers, the Defense Department concluded that there may have been as many as 26,000 instances of "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012.

That's a whole lot of unwanted sexual contact -- and whether it involves drunken groping or violent rape, sexual assaults can shatter careers and psyches. That's particularly true when the chain of command responds inappropriately, which still happens more often than it should. In the Pentagon's survey, some 67 percent of female servicemembers who said they experienced sexual assault never reported the assault to authorities -- and of those "non-reporters," 66 percent said they felt "uncomfortable" reporting the incident, 51 percent lacked confidence that their report would be treated confidentially, and 47 percent said that fear of retaliation or reprisal prevented them from reporting the assaults.              

There's no question that the military needs to do more to address the problem of sexual assault. Nevertheless, when you look more closely at the statistics, there's much less reason than commonly assumed to condemn the military. Although the New York Times editorial board insists that the military has an "entrenched culture of sexual violence," rates of sexual assault in the military in fact appear to be substantially lower than rates of sexual assault in comparable civilian populations. And although underreporting remains a serious problem, military personnel are substantially more likely than civilians to report sexual assaults to the authorities.

Relative to the size of the military population, 26,000 sexual assaults means that 6.1 percent of female servicemembers (and 1.2 percent of male servicemembers) experienced unwanted sexual contact during 2012. If you favor your glass half full, you might prefer to note that 93.9 percent of female servicemembers and 98.8 percent of male servicemembers had no unwanted sexual contact.

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon found that two-thirds of both the perpetrators and victims of reported sexual assaults were young -- aged 24 or under. In part, this reflects the age distribution in the military as a whole (roughly half of all servicemembers are 17-24 years old), but it also reflects the fact that young people are disproportionately likely to engage in foolish and dangerous sexual behavior. They have less life and military experience than older servicemembers, less sexual experience, and less experience with the effects of alcohol, which is a factor in roughly half of military sexual assaults.

Sexual assault rates in civilian populations

To evaluate levels of sexual assault in the military, we need some points of comparison. First, consider sexual assault rates in the U.S. population as a whole. It's virtually impossible to get apples-to-apples comparisons, as various studies use slightly different definitions of sexual assault and look at different timeframes. But as Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolff noted in a May 21 Foreign Policy article, the available evidence suggests that sexual assault rates in the civilian population are similar or higher than in the military. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 18.3 percent of civilian women had been raped at some point in their lifetime, while 27.2 percent had experienced "unwanted sexual contact."

In the 12 month period preceding the study, the CDC report found that 1.1 percent of women reported experiencing a rape or attempted rape, and an additional 5.6 percent of women reported some form of "other sexual violence," for an overall rape and sexual violence rate of 6.7 percent -- slightly higher than the 6.1 percent of women reporting unwanted sexual contact in the 12 month period examined by the DOD study. And in the civilian population, as in the military, sexual assault rates are highest among the young: The CDC found that 79.6 percent of rape victims reported that they were first raped before they reached the age of 25.

It's also useful to examine sexual assault rates in another kind of institution populated mainly by 17- to 24-year-olds: the civilian university. Here again, direct comparisons are impossible due to variations in the available studies, but the evidence again suggests that sexual assault rates in the military are, if anything, lower than in similar civilian settings. One major study published by the Justice Department in 2000 found that 3.5 percent of college women reported a rape or attempted rape, while an additional 15.5 percent of college women reported that they had been "sexually victimized" in some other way during the academic year in which they were surveyed. Of these "non-rape" sexual victimizations, 7.7 percent involved physical force. Another 2007 Justice Department study found that "13.7 percent of undergraduate women had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault since entering college."

College women also appear to be even less likely than women in the military to report incidents of sexual assault to the authorities. Again, the caveat here is that the available studies looked at different time periods. But while 33 percent of female servicemembers who said they had experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012 said they reported the assaults to military authorities, the Justice Department's 2000 study of sexual assaults on college campuses found that only 5 percent of victims reported the incidents to college or law enforcement authorities. As with military women, the college women who did not report their experiences cited concerns about confidentiality, not being taken seriously, or being treated with hostility by the police.

The military as model?

Here's what it adds up to: All in all, the rate of sexual assault in the military doesn't appear significantly higher than the rate in the broader civilian population -- and when you look at college campuses, which, like the military, are full of 17- to 24-year-olds, the military's sexual assault rates start looking low in comparison. The New York Times may be right to assert that the military has an "entrenched culture of sexual violence," but it would be more accurate to observe that the United States as a whole is characterized by an entrenched culture of sexual violence. Macho traditions notwithstanding, the military appears to have done a better job than most colleges of reducing the sexual assault rate and increasing women's willingness to report assaults to the authorities.

To be completely clear, this is not an argument for deciding that sexual assault isn't a problem in the military. Far from it: Sexual assaults continue to destroy too many lives, and the high rates of military women who say they don't trust the system enough to report sexual assaults is evidence of the ongoing need to improve both prevention and response programs. Nevertheless, the military seems to be doing something right, since it has been able to bring sexual assault rates down below those prevalent in comparable civilian populations.

Even the best prevention programs are unlikely to eliminate all sexual crimes, but good programs taken seriously by committed leaders can make a real difference. The military should continue to study the factors that affect sexual assault rates and reporting rates, and continue to refine and improve prevention and response programs -- and civilian universities seeking to lower their own sexual assault rates should consider looking to the military for examples and ideas.

Anxiety and reaction: changing roles, changing norms

All this leaves something of a mystery. If military sexual assault rates are lower than comparable civilian sexual assault rates, why all the frantic rhetoric recently about scandal, crisis, and epidemic? Why isn't Congress saying, "Good job, DOD, you've demonstrated that a sustained focus on preventing sexual assault can keep military sexual assault rates below the rate in civilian populations. Now let's get that sexual assault rate down even further!"

Here's my theory.

The last two years have seen two policy changes that radically challenge traditional conceptions of masculinity and military ideals: the end of the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military and the ban on women serving in combat positions. Change can feel threatening to those accustomed to the status quo, and social change this far-reaching has historically been accompanied by exaggerated claims of the harms likely to result. Sometimes these claims are well meaning; other times, not so much.

When President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. military, critics warned that the move would lead to an increase in race-based tensions and violence. But as Truman and others had predicted, equality ultimately led to a decrease in incidents of discrimination and racial harassment, despite early hiccups. When ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was debated, critics issued similar warnings about the impact of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. So far, the evidence suggests that this concern was just as unfounded.

When it comes to allowing women into the military, opponents have also asserted that allowing both sexes to serve side by side would lead to increasing sexual assaults against women -- and any news of sexual assault in the military is used to justify opposition to full integration of women in to the military. ("We told you so," crowed the right-wing Independent Women's Forum in response to a 2004 Washington Post story on sexual assault in the Army, proudly noting its "long history" of warning that gender-integrated training would "inevitably" give rise to "sexual mishaps.")

Maybe it's just happenstance that the most recent round of hysteria about military sexual assault rates followed hard on the heels of the Pentagon's announcement that it would open all combat positions to women, but I doubt it.

Most of those speaking out against sexual violence in the military are strong supporters of the full integration of women into combat roles, but we should be aware that when remarks about "epidemics" and "crises" are carelessly made, they can discourage young women from pursuing military careers and play into the hands of those who would prefer to keep the "no girls allowed" sign on the door.

Advocates for women in the military should press for additional sexual assault prevention reforms, but at the same time, they should insist that we keep the military's sexual assault rate in perspective -- and they should continue to point out how important and empowering it is for women to participate in the military alongside their male peers. A 2011 Pew survey found that post-9/11 female veterans were "just as likely as their male counterparts to say they have experienced the positive benefits of military service." Seventy-nine percent of women veterans believed their military service had "helped them get ahead in life," 87 percent said that serving in the military had built their self-confidence, and 93 percent felt the military had helped them "grow and mature as a person."

In the end, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it best: "We've had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault.... I believe it's because we've had separate classes of military personnel, at some level. Now, you know, it's far more complicated than that, but when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally."

Say it, brother.


National Security

America the Coupless

Just because our military won't take over doesn't mean civilians can ignore it.

Happy birthday, America! It's good to live in a land that hasn't had a successful coup attempt, military or otherwise, in 237 years.

Two-hundred thirty-seven coup-less years is nothing to sneeze at. In some countries, the coup d'état is practically a national sport. Haiti has had several dozen coups, and Afghanistan, Thailand, and Bolivia have each had a dozen or more. The 20th century was chock-full of coups in Europe: France saw its last coup attempt in 1961, while the Italians, who've gone in for coups since well before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, tried their most recent coup in the 1970s. Europe has managed to remain largely coup-less for the last few decades, but the 21st century is proving to be a good time for the coup d'état in most other parts of the world. Since the year 2000, there have been coups and coup attempts in Fiji, Ecuador, Congo, Venezuela, Guinea, Nepal, Libya, Syria, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Cote D'Ivoire, Haiti, the Philippines, and Egypt, to offer just a partial list.

You might think that after 237 years, we Americans are just about due for a military coup -- and if you Google the terms "military coup united states," you'll find plenty of nutballs who are thoroughly convinced of it. One right-wing site suggests, "If the American voters are unable to stop the bleeding and remove this lunatic of a President ... then perhaps the military will provide the justice that a growing number of Americans are clamoring for." Another site dedicated to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories advocates a coup to end "Jewish rule in our nation," or, alternatively, to end "the Obama problem." (And you thought Obama was a Muslim!) Then there's someone calling himself "Video Rebel," who warns that our "self-appointed leaders on Wall street [sic]," not content with outsized corporate profits, plan to "release a series of plagues" -- or perhaps start a race war -- then "enslave the survivors." Our only hope of salvation lies in a military coup, since "the American military hopefully will refuse to sacrifice millions of their relatives."

Meanwhile, other Internet denizens live in fear of the military coup that's right around the corner. One self-styled "geopolitical analyst" warns, "The US intelligence community, in conjunction with Wall Street corporate-financier interests, have spent an inordinate amount of time positioning themselves for a possible military coup and martial law take over of the United States," to be led, apparently, by David Petraeus. Another site warns that "various elements" within the U.S. military, angry about federal debt levels, are "actively planning" for the overthrow of President Obama.

Don't start stockpiling munitions just yet: In the non-crackpot world, virtually no one thinks a U.S. military coup is in the realm of the conceivable.

Thankfully, coups just aren't our style. In 2006, Harper's Magazine assembled several top military thinkers and asked them to assess the likelihood of a military coup: The group was unanimous in their conviction that it couldn't happen. It "just wouldn't work here," said Edward Luttwak. "It's impossible given the culture of the military," agreed Charles Dunlap (at the time still a senior Air Force JAG officer). "The professional ethic in the military is firmly committed to the principle that they don't rule," confirmed Andrew Bacevich.

The occasional nutjob notwithstanding, we have an extraordinarily professionalized military, in which, as Dunlap asserts, "[C]ivilian control of the military is ... deeply ingrained." Study after study of military attitudes reaffirms this. An exhaustive 2009 study found that a solid 70 percent of Army officers consider it inappropriate for active-duty military personnel to offer any public criticism of the decisions of senior civilian leaders, and most officers hew strongly to the view that the military's job is to advise, but not to "advocate" or "insist" on matters relating to the use of force.

That's something worth celebrating this 4th of July. There's plenty to criticize about American democracy -- but we don't solve our political disputes with tanks in the streets and elected officials in military detention.

But let's not congratulate ourselves too much. The chances of a military coup in the United States are vanishingly tiny, but that doesn't mean civil-military relations in the United States are healthy. On the contrary: There are plenty of danger signs both within the military and within the civilian population, and civil-military relations are characterized by numerous misunderstandings and misperceptions. (There's also ample reason to worry about the increasing blurriness between military and non-military spheres, a subject I've touched on in previous columns, and will say more about in the future -- but for now, let's just look at military and civilian attitudes towards civil-military relations.)

Start with some troubling trends within the military: For several decades, America's military leadership has self-identified as more conservative and more Republican than the general public. In itself, this isn't necessarily a problem: Most military personnel are professional enough to keep their politics far away from how they do their jobs. But the norm against partisanship seems to be weakening. In a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, Heidi Urben, Peter Feaver, James Golby, and Kyle Dropp warned of a trend towards increasing partisan political activity by military personnel. Looking at surveys, data on political contributions, and a CNAS study showing that "public expression by senior military officials of opposition or support for use of force abroad has a measurable impact on U.S. public opinion," they worried that political endorsements by retired senior officers, "now a regular feature of presidential campaigns, threaten one of the most cherished principles of the U.S. military: its independence from partisan politics."

An excellent study by Urben reinforced the concern that military officers' ideology sometimes spills over into areas vital to healthy civil-military relations. In general, she found, distrust of civilian leadership runs high among Army officers: 55 percent report, for instance, that they believe civilian decision-makers are motivated by "domestic partisan politics" rather than national security concerns. But Urben also found a dismaying partisan gap in Army officers' attitudes towards civilian leadership and attitudes towards military participation in politics: "Republican-leaning officers were more likely to display lower trust levels in the government compared to Democrats. For example, 62% of Republicans felt that when civilians gave orders to the military, domestic partisan politics were the motivation compared to 53% of Democrats. Forty-one percent of Republicans believed that during wartime civilians should let the military run the war, compared to 31% of Democrats. And ... 46% of Republicans felt the president should have served in the military [in order to be respected as commander in chief], compared to just 18% of Democrats."

Urben also found that the Army is a less comfortable place for those who lean to the left. Army officers who self-identified as Democrats were substantially more likely than Republican or independent officers to report discomfort in discussing political views with their colleagues, and junior officers who were Democrats are somewhat more likely to leave the military than their Republican and independent peers.

We don't need a military that mirrors the politics of the nation as a whole, but it's worrying to think that military culture makes some Americans feel less welcome, or that ideology affects officers' commitments to civilian control over the military.

The military isn't solely to blame for these trends. In the age of the all-volunteer military, less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans serves at any given time. If the military is more Southern, less urban, and more politically conservative than the population as a whole, it's in part a reflection of who volunteers (though it also has something to do with recruiting patterns and base relocation decisions).

The wide cultural and demographic gaps between the military and the civilian population make some of the military's distrust of civilian officials unsurprising. A 2011 Pew survey found that "84% of post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families," and the 2012 annual Military Times poll found that more than 75 percent of active duty and reserve respondents agreed with the statement, "The military community has little in common with the rest of the country and most civilians do not understand the military."

This doesn't stop the general public from claiming to love the military: The military is, by far, the most highly respected public institution in the United States. But the public offers the military a remarkably shallow form of respect, characterized more by a pro forma "God bless our troops" than by anything approaching clarity on what the military is or does. Thank you for your service, and have a nice day.

For a chillingly high number of Americans, this combination of ignorance and reflexive respect translates into an astounding lack of interest in civilian control of the military: A 2010 Rasmussen poll found that only 44 percent of Americans favor civilian control of the military. Another 28 percent of our fellow citizens "don't know" how they feel about the subject, while an additional 28 percent of our fellow citizens assert that "civilian control of the military is bad for the country." Way to go, America!

Tocqueville famously quipped that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. It's a good thing we don't yet have the military we deserve: If we did, we might be seeing tanks in our own public squares.

Happy 4th of July.

SHAWN THEW-Pool/Getty Images