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.