Why Does Sexual Assault Occur in the Military?

Sexual assault claims among military service members are alarmingly high. According to the 2018 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, 20,500 active-duty service members reported experiencing sexual assault or rape, including about 13,000 women and 7,500 men. This indicates that 6.2 percent of female and 0.7 percent of male service members experienced sexual assault. Service members who are young, just entering the military, or being transferred to a new duty station are particularly vulnerable.

By comparison, the 2018 Uniform Crime Report estimated that nearly 140,000 rapes were reported to US law enforcement that year. This indicates that 0.04 percent of the civilian population experienced sexual assault.

Why is the Rate of Sexual Assault So Much Higher in the Military?

Despite the DoD’s continued efforts to reduce sexual violence in the military, service members of both genders face a disproportionately high chance of being sexually assaulted than the general population. Many have speculated as to why this is.

Military Culture

The root causes of military sexual assault mirror those of the civilian population, but military culture exacerbates many of them. For instance, the military promotes gender stereotypes by having a patriarchal structure and emphasizing masculine ideals like dominance, aggression, self-sufficiency, and risk-taking. This can create the “image of some men as sexually violent predators and women as sexual victims,” says Professor Elizabeth Hillman of the University of California Hastings College of Law.

Combined with power differentials between the genders and the military culture of homophobia, this can lead hyper-masculine men to prove their masculinity through inappropriate sexual behavior. Soldiers often learn to limit their empathy to complete combat duties, and some may apply this to their uniformed peers, making it easier to commit sexual assaults.

Hillman also argues that “because of the dramatic and well-publicized extent of military-on-military sexual violence, it has become normalized in military culture, even as changes in military demographics, law, and policy have raised awareness of, and punishments for, military sexual violence.”

All-Volunteer Military

The US military comprises volunteers. The reasons soldiers enlist vary, but economic motivations are common and well-understood. After all, the military is a path out of poverty and dead-end jobs for poor Americans.

What is less commonly discussed is that many soldiers enlist to escape a violent or troubled home life. According to two studies of Army and Marine recruits conducted in 1996 and 2005, 50 percent of male enlistees were physically abused as children, 16 percent were sexually abused, and 11 percent experienced both types of abuse. This is a significant finding because abused children often grow up to be abusers.

The military has exacerbated this problem by increasing the number of “moral waivers” it grants recruits. This allows more applicants with records of domestic and sexual violence to join the military, where they may become repeat offenders.

Command Climates

The odds of sexual assault are higher for members serving under a commanding officer who takes less responsibility for preventing sexual assault, encouraging reporting, or promoting a mutually respectful climate between genders. Placing a callous, entitled, and remorseless person in this environment, where few external barriers temper their sexual aggression, can contribute to an increased risk of sexual assault.

Leadership Structures

In the military, sexual assaults are handled within the chain of command, giving a victim’s commanding officer the ability to intervene at any point. The commander may choose to halt investigations, reduce sentences, or set aside convictions, with no requirement to attend trials or offer public explanations for these decisions.

Such actions are common because the military leadership structure incentivizes commanders to avoid pursuing sexual assault allegations within their ranks. After all, commanders are responsible for maintaining order and discipline. If an assault occurs on their watch, it looks bad and could affect their chance for future promotion. Therefore, many commanders are compelled to ensure sexual assault doesn’t happen in their units—at least, not on paper.

Unhealthy Work Climates

Most service members enjoy relatively healthy unit climates. However, according to the DoD’s 2018 findings, women who report sexual harassment, gender discrimination, workplace hostility, lack of unit cohesion, and/or lack of personal responsibility in their unit are three times more at risk for sexual assault. And while men have a lower risk than women, males who report sexual harassment are 12 times more at risk for sexual assault.

Military Living Arrangements

Co-ed dorms and barracks are high-risk areas for sexual assault. Leadership should make significant efforts to enhance the safety of all occupants.

Why Do Alleged Victims Choose to Report or Not?

Police and other legal authorities believe many sexual assault and harassment cases go unreported, both among civilians and in the military. In 2018, the DoD estimated that about one in three victims of sexual assault reported the incident, an improvement over the 2006 estimate of one in 14 victims coming forward. Consider these common reasons victims may choose not to report sexual assault:

  • They want to forget about it and move on.
  • They don’t want others to know about it.
  • They fear blame and retaliation.
  • Their resilience training prevents them from wanting to seek help.
  • They don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker, disruptor, or betrayer of their unit.

On the other hand, victims have plenty of good reasons to report the incident to the proper authorities. Here are a few examples:

  • They want to stop the alleged offender from hurting anyone else.
  • They want to prevent being victimized by the alleged offender again.
  • Someone encouraged them to report the incident.

What about false allegations? While legitimate sexual assault and rape cases should be taken seriously, the idea that no one is ever falsely accused is preposterous. Some reasons why alleged victims may falsely accuse another of sexual assault include:

  • They have false memories of the event due to substance use or another reason.
  • They bend the truth to deny a consensual encounter or create an alibi.
  • They intentionally fabricate a story for revenge, for monetary gain, to get attention, or out of mental instability.

Defend Yourself Against Accusations of Sexual Assault in the Military

Everyone talks about the fear of being sexually assaulted while serving in the military, but the fear of being falsely accused is also a genuine concern. After all, victims who report abuse are not the only ones who may encounter retaliation. The falsely accused also face potential ostracism, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay, allowances, and veteran benefits. In short, a false accusation can ruin a person’s military career and personal life.

If you have been accused of sexual assault in the military, turn to Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, a military criminal defense lawyer who can vigorously represent your case. Mr. Jordan is a former JAG officer who has successfully defended service members against rape and sexual assault charges for over a decade. To speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case, call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-853-0064 today.

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