DOD officials release sexual assault statistics

  • Published
  • By John J. Kruzel
  • American Forces Press Service
Defense Department officials here released March 17 a congressional report that examines sexual assault allegations in the military services and sets policies for reducing incidents.

Key components of the annual analysis include a finding that indicates a rise in the number of incidents reported in fiscal 2008 and details of department-led initiatives aimed at preventing sexual assault and increasing the accountability of offenders.

"Given the fear and stigma associated with the crime, sexual assault remains one of our nation's most under-reported crimes in both the military and civilian community," said Dr. Kaye Whitley, the director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "The department has been aggressively pursuing efforts to increase reporting and convince more victims to seek care and support services."

The analysis found 2,923 sexual assault "reports" in fiscal 2008, which is roughly an 8 percent increase compared to fiscal 2007. But officials cautioned that the rise in reporting -- a figure that represents the total number of sexual assaults reported -- is not necessarily indicative that more incidents occurred.

One possible explanation for the increase could be that higher numbers of victims are reporting incidents as people become more aware of sexual assault in general, and the military's robust support network, Dr. Whitley said.

"This does not mean sexual assaults have gone up," she said. "This means that reports have gone up, which we see as very positive. The increase of reports means the department's policy of getting victims to come forward is making a difference."

Defense officials said that the aggregate number of reports combines incidents that vary in the degree of offense committed. About 63 percent represent rape or aggravated assault. Also, 251 incidents occurred in combat areas, with 141 in Iraq and 22 in Afghanistan. Those numbers increased from fiscal 2007, Dr. Whitley said.

Speaking on sexual assault prevention, Dr. Whitley said the department seeks to establish a military culture that calls on bystanders to play a more active role in preventing assaults.

She said the spirit of the effort was partly inspired by a campaign launched to curb drunk driving, in which friends were encouraged to dissuade their peers from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. There are parallels between the programs as many cases of sexual assault involve alcohol.

"If you see one of your buddies serve drinks to somebody to get them drunk, maybe what you do is step up and say, 'Why don't you wait until she's sober?'" Dr. Whitley said, illustrating an example of bystander intervention.

As part of the department's social marketing prevention campaign, a public service announcement is set to launch worldwide next month, which will promote bystander intervention. The 20-second video shows still pictures of male and female servicemembers with a dubbed, male voice saying, "preventing sexual assault is part of my duty."

"Our goal is to strengthen the knowledge and the skills of servicemembers and empower them to identify and safely intervene in situations that may lead up to sexual assault," Dr. Whitley said.

The department's multipronged approach to tackling the subject acknowledges that not all incidents are preventable. Another component of the policy is raising awareness that victims have a strong support network should they seek help.

Dr. Whitley said an average of one in six women and one in 32 men in the United States experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime.

But the department hopes its robust approach to caring for victims will encourage them to alert the proper authority -- the sexual assault response coordinator based on every military installation and dedicated to providing such assistance -- when incidents occur.

"We have a 24-hour system in place to respond to sexual assaults," she said, adding that the response coordinator supports the victim through every step of the process, including medical care counseling and other services.

Those who are victimized by sexual assault can report the incident one of two ways: they can file an unrestricted or restricted report, the latter of which protects the anonymity of the victim and does not lead to a criminal investigation.

Of the 2,923 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2008, 2,280 were unrestricted, while 643 were restricted, according to the congressional report.

DOD officials understand the need to balance victims' anonymity vs. pursuing justice against the perpetrator, Dr. Whitley said, adding that the department will always support the victim's right to choose which course of reporting with which they're most comfortable.

Neither the victim's command nor the police are notified in cases of restricted, or anonymous, reporting. But victims are permitted to have a voluntary forensic examination performed soon after the incident, with the results being saved for up to a year, should an investigation be launched later.

Dr. Whitley noted that last year, 110 incidents that began as restricted reports were decided by the victims to be transferred to unrestricted.

"What we hope is that the victim will feel that they've gained a sense of control back and maybe they'll begin to develop confidence in our system and later switch to unrestricted so we can hold that offender accountable," Dr. Whitley said.

Oftentimes, taking the first step -- reporting the incident -- proves difficult. According to Defense officials, of the 6.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men who indicated they experienced unwanted sexual contact, the majority -- 79 percent of women and 78 percent of men -- chose not to report it.

The most frequently cited reasons for not reporting the incident include:
-- Felt uncomfortable making a report (58 percent of women and 51 percent of men);
-- Thought they would be labeled a troublemaker (56 percent of women and 41 percent of men);
-- Did not want anyone to know about the incident (56 percent of women and 47 percent of men);
-- Did not think anything would be done (53 percent of women and 44 percent of men);
-- Feared retaliation (50 percent of women and 38 percent of men);
-- Not important enough to report (48 percent of women and 60 percent of men);
-- Thought they would not be believed (41 percent of women and 35 percent of men);
-- Thought reporting would take too much time and effort (36 percent of women and 46 percent of men); and
-- Did not report because they did not know how (18 percent of women and 26 percent of men).

"It is my hope today that when (servicemembers) see this report or press conference, that they will be encouraged and come forward to report sexual assault and receive care," Dr. Whitley said. "Sexual assault harms our people and erodes our mission readiness. The department remains committed to aggressively pursuing increased reporting of sexual assault, providing first-class care and preventing this crime before it occurs."

(Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden from the American Forces Press Service contributed to this article)