Reports of sexual assault in the military leapt by 50 percent last year, according to a much-anticipated Pentagon study that came out last week.
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The report was released on the heels of a Pentagon campaign to get victims to come forward, but the startling numbers have the attention of politicians and activists. The Service Women's Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America also filed a joint suit against the Veterans Administration last week, claiming its regulations discriminate against veterans seeking benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder linked to sexual assault.
The suit claims that more than half of women in the military experience unwanted sexual contact during their service, but it's not only women who are victims: Of the 26,000 reports of sexual assault and harassment made from 2011 to 2012, some 52 percent came from men.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared sexual assault a "clear threat" to both male and female servicemembers.
A serious threat
New research shows that women in the military often experience trauma that's not battle related: Half of women that served in Iraq and Afghanistan reported being sexually harassed or assaulted by their peers, according to findings published last year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Amy Street, associate professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Boston University, led the three-year study. "That’s very high, and certainly too high. If I saw those from any sample in any setting I would say that's too high," says Street, a clinical psychologist and deputy director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the Boston Veterans Administration hospital.
Still, says Street, the numbers have to be put in context, and include a range of behaviors. "Unwanted sexual touching could be hair stroking, groping, or an attempted or completed rape," she says. Unfortunately, she notes, young women in their early 20's report similar numbers that are alarmingly high in other situations, too. One in five college women report having been sexually assaulted, for example, prompting questions about "rape culture" and a plea from the White House last week asking colleges to seriously address the problem of campus rape.
Across organizations, Street says, those that are historically male-dominated and have a strong hierarchical culture are associated with more sexual harassment — from fire and police departments to Fortune 500 companies.
The circumstances for sexual assault in a military setting might be especially problematic, says Street, especially in terms of the consequences of reporting attacks. "One of the things that's a real strength in the military is the esprit de corps and sacred purpose of the mission, but when [sexual trauma] happens, it can feel like quite a betrayal," Street says. "It can also make it difficult for victims to report and compromise their team, or make sense of it in the aftermath."
Women report "internal barriers" to reporting, she says. They may ask themselves, "If I report this will it have a negative effect on the mission, or the group's cohesion?"
"Women in the military take their jobs incredibly seriously and think carefully and cautiously," Street says.
There is also a history of "retaliation" toward women who report sexual misconduct, says Sarah Blum, a nurse psychotherapist and Vietnam veteran, and author of "Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military."
Blum set out to collect experiences from women in the military, and was struck by the number of women who reported abuse, and changed the focus of her book. Some of the women interviewed in the book suffered grisly crimes like gang rape, she says, only to be interrogated, detained and, in some cases, threatened when they reported the crime.
In a Defense Department report, 74 percent of females and 60 percent of males said they perceived barriers to reporting assault, and 62 percent of victims who did report said they experienced professional, social or administrative retaliation.
"Some men have the attitude that they can do and say whatever they want and get away with it," Blum says. "The problem is, they do often get away with it. Commanders have allowed this to happen and done nothing to stop it."
It's also not unusual that the perpetrator is the victim's commander, or is in a position of power over them. Twenty five percent of women and 27 percent of men who received unwanted sexual contact indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command, according to a Defense Department report.
Rape is much more likely to occur between people who know each other, says Anthony Zenkus, who specializes in helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence as director of education at The Safe Center LI, a nonprofit that provides services for victims of abuse.
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