A fairly jubilant new report released Thursday by the Department of Defense claims that military sexual assault has dropped sharply in the past two years, while at the same time more victims have come forward to report being assaulted. The Pentagon sees it as clear win, a sign that service members finally feel comfortable reporting sexual crimes committed against them. But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who's made military sexual assault one of her key issues, issued a statement calling the report "disappointing," casting a skeptical eye on the Pentagon's claims of progress and pointing out that nearly two-thirds of service members who reported their assaults say they experienced some form of retaliation for doing so.
You can see the full report here and an executive summary here, but suffice it to say, the thing is packed with so much dense number salad that the New York Times and USA Today filed advance stories with exactly conflicting headlines: the NYT went with "Reports of Sexual Assaults in Military on Rise" versus USA Today's "Reports of unwanted sexual contact in military drop 27%." Ooof. (Neither paper had seen the report yet; both were relying on different sources, the NYT citing "Obama administration officials" and USA Today relying on "Pentagon figures obtained" by the paper.)
So what the hell is actually going on? The Department of Defense summarizes it as "Prevalence Down, Reporting Up." According to the summary, the percentage of active-duty women who experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in the past year "declined from 6.1 percent in 2012 to 4.3 percent in 2014." For active duty men, it stayed about the same, 1.2 percent in 2013 versus 0.9 percent in 2014.
At the same time, the DoD says, "While underreporting continues to be a problem, the number of victims in Fiscal Years 2013 and 2014 who came forward to make reports significantly increased." The report says 2013 saw a 50 percent increase in reports over 2012, and in 2014 reports went up another eight percent.
"Whereas only one in 10 victims was reporting just two years ago, that rate has increased to one in four," the authors write. "Given that the past-year prevalence (occurrence) of sexual assault decreased from Fiscal Year 2012 to Fiscal Year 2014, the importance of this upward trend in reporting cannot be overstated. Increased reporting signals not only growing trust of command and confidence in the response system, but serves as the gateway to provide more victims with support and to hold a greater number of offenders appropriately accountable."
But the DoD also said they were "unable to identify clear progress in the area of perceived victim retaliation." In her own statement, Gillibrand called that a "screaming red flag:"
For a year now we have heard how the reforms in the previous Defense bill were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime. It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62% of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against – nearly two-thirds – the exact same number as last year. It is no wonder that still less than 3 out of 10 victims feel they can report their assaults, and the percentage of those brave men and women who had enough faith in the system to put their name on that report actually dropped this year.
And let me be clear, an estimate of 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact a year in our military, or 55 cases a day, is appalling, and remains at 2010 levels.
Gillibrand has been trying for over a year to take sexual assault prosecutions out of the military chain of command, handing them over to relatively impartial military lawyers. She renewed that call in her press release yesterday, backed this time by a former Air Force prosecutor, Col. Don Christensen, who says he stepped down in disgust over how the military was handling their sexual assault problem, calling it an "ineffective, broken system of justice."
"There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed," Gillibrand added. "Enough is enough. Last December the President said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work and it is clear they have failed in their mission."
Image via AP