Sexual assaults at US military academies were up 64% last academic year, according to a Defense Dept. report. And while the Air Force had the biggest increase, they may actually be doing the most to combat assault.
According to the AP, the actual numbers of assaults reported were fairly small: 41 total in the 2009-2010 year, compared with 25 the year before. West Point went up from 9 to 10 incidents, the Naval Academy from 8 to 11. The Air Force Academy had the biggest increase — from 8 to 20. Though these numbers may seem low, the AP points out that experts believe that among the general population, "reported sexual assaults represent fewer than 10 percent of all types of unwanted sexual contact" — and if this holds true for the military academies as well, the real number of incidents could be much higher.
The Air Force Academy's sharp increase is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it may be a fluke — that is, the 8 assaults in 2008-09 may be the unusual number, rather than the 20 in 2009-10. The Academy had 19 reported assaults 2006-07 and 24 in 2007-08. What happened in 2008-09? Turns out an assault case was thrown out instead of being tried. So that year may have seen not fewer rapes, but fewer victims willing to report them, because of fears that they wouldn't be heard.
However, the reason the Air Force Academy has more reported assaults in general than the other schools is interesting too. Students there seem to believe in their sexual assault response coordinator, with nearly half of female and male respondents viewing this official as valuable to "a large extent." Fewer than 20% of Naval Academy and West Point students feel that way about their coordinators. So the biggest lesson of this year's numbers may be one of reporting: it's essential to create an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward. The military is beginning to acknowledge that sexual assault is a problem among troops. If the academies can follow that up with real solutions to make reporting easier, reported assaults may indeed go up — but that won't necessarily mean the situation is getting worse. It'll mean that something that's been a problem for a long time is finally getting the attention it deserves.