Pentagon May Spin, But Military Sexual Assault Problem Still Rampant

The Department of Defense’s long-awaited report to President Obama on military sexual assault doesn’t show nearly enough progress in dealing with the problem, advocates for survivors say.

The report claimed good news, and was lauded by military higher-ups. The total estimated number of sexual assaults went down from 26,000 in 2012 to about 20,000 in 2014. The number of victims who reported the crime has gone up by 50 percent in 2013 and by another 8 percent in 2014, and the percentage has also gone up, from about one in ten victims reporting their assault to about one in four.

Fewer victims and higher rates of reporting would seem to be a step in the right direction. “This is exactly the combination we’ve been looking for,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said Thursday in a statement.

But the editorial boards of both the New York Times and USA Today took the Pentagon’s report to task on Sunday for its “optimistic spin” and “overstated” analysis. And advocates say that the Department of Defense (DOD) and its defenders are cherry-picking favorable numbers and ignoring important context.

While fewer assaults are encouraging, 2014’s drop may not be much more than a statistical blip, Miranda Petersen, program and policy director at the victims’ advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, told RH Reality Check in an interview.

“In eight years, this number has not dropped below 19,000,” Petersen said, noting that sexual assault rates have fluctuated between 4.3 and 6.8 percent for women since 2006, and that rates for men have remained unchanged.

The issue of how many victims report the crimes against them is also more complicated than the Pentagon suggests, Petersen said.

Proportionally, more of the increase in reporting is due to “restricted” reports, which don’t have a victim’s name attached to them, than “unrestricted” reports, which do, and which can be prosecuted.

More restricted reports suggests less confidence in the system, Petersen said.

As for the overall increase in reporting, Petersen said, there’s no evidence that any of the military’s reforms are responsible for that.

“People are reporting in higher numbers, but there is also a flood of media attention, congressional attention, presidential attention, on the issue,” she said. “Survivors are feeling emboldened.”

More reports doesn’t mean more prosecutions or convictions. The percentage of reports that were prosecuted went down slightly, and only 175 out of 5,983 reports resulted in a sex offense conviction.

And regardless of other factors, the number of reported assaults are still seen as much too high.

“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,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a statement. “There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed.”

Gillibrand also called it a “screaming red flag” that there was no change in the number of victims—nearly two-thirds—who said they experienced either social or professional retaliation for reporting their assault.

Sens. Gillibrand and McCaskill have been at opposite ends of a battle for a major military justice reform that would have prosecutors, not military commanders, decide whether to bring sexual assault cases to trial. Advocates say the reform is necessary to help victims feel more comfortable coming forward and to prevent conflicts of interest if a commander knows an accused assailant.

Gillibrand hopes to push that reform through this week as an amendment to the defense spending bill.

In a press conference on the DOD report’s findings Thursday, McCaskill pointed to a survey of survivors that showed high levels of confidence in the military justice system and commanders’ role in it. Seventy-three percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their unit commander’s response, and 82 percent said their unit commander supported them.

These results, McCaskill said, help prove that it isn’t necessary to change the way assaults are prosecuted by removing the chain of command from the process.

But that survey isn’t scientific or generalizable, Petersen said. Only 150 victims responded out of more than 5,000 who were given the survey. Not only that, but the survey was distributed 30-150 days after reporting—not enough time for the survivor’s case to go through the system.

“Most of the people we deal with, at that point, don’t know the results of the investigation or pre-trial hearing,” Petersen said. “They don’t know whether or not their case will be taken seriously, or if they will face professional repercussions or have their privacy violated.”

Even successful reforms cheered by advocates seemingly aren’t enough. It’s now a crime to retaliate against service members who report a sexual assault, but Petersen said there’s been no evidence of any efforts to prosecute it.

And while newly-mandated “special victims counselors” give survivors the feeling of having someone in their corner, these attorneys still aren’t guaranteed the right to represent a survivor in court outside of a limited set of issues, and many counselors are themselves experiencing retaliation.

The bottom line, Petersen said, is that more serious reforms to the justice system are needed, and the Pentagon isn’t even interested in making the more modest reforms that have already passed.

“A lot of these are programs that they fought tooth and nail to prevent, and now they’re saying, ‘Look, we’re following Congress’s instructions and implementing them.’ And that’s the metric of progress.”

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