Military sex assault reports edge up; retaliation persists

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By LOLITA C. BALDOR

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Reports of sexual assaults in the military increased slightly last year, the Pentagon said Monday, and more than half the victims reported negative reactions or retaliation for their complaints.

Defense officials, however, said an anonymous survey conducted last year showed some progress in fighting sexual assault, as fewer than 15,000 service members described themselves as victims of unwanted sexual contact. That is 4,000 fewer than in a 2014 survey.

Because sexual assault is a highly underreported crime, the Pentagon has used anonymous surveys for several years to track the problem.

For more than a decade, the Defense Department has been trying to encourage more people to report sexual assaults and harassment. The agency says greater reporting allows more victims to seek treatment.

According to the new report released Monday, there were 6,172 reports of sexual assault filed in 2016, compared to 6,083 the previous year. The largest increase occurred in the Navy, with 5 percent more reports. There was a 3 percent jump in the Air Force. The Army and Marine Corps had slight decreases.

The numbers make it clear that the fight to end sexual assault is far from over, said Elizabeth Van Winkle, who is working as the assistant secretary of defense for readiness.

She said that the survey numbers coupled with the small increase in assault reports, suggest that a higher percentage of actual victims are coming forward, showing that they trust the system. But, she added, “we don’t confuse progress with success.”

Retaliation is difficult to determine, and the Defense Department has been adjusting its measurements for several years. It seeks to differentiate between more serious workplace retribution and social snubs that, while upsetting, are not illegal.

Two years ago, a RAND Corporation study found that about 57 percent of sexual assault victims believed they faced retaliation from commanders or peers. Members of Congress demanded swift steps to protect whistleblowers, including sexual assault victims, who are wronged as a result of reports or complaints.

Data at the time suggested that many victims described the vengeful behavior as social backlash, including online snubs, that don’t meet the legal definition of retaliation.

Officials are trying to get a greater understanding about perceptions of retaliation. They’ve added more questions and analysis to eliminate instances when commanders make adjustments or transfer victims to protect them, as opposed to punishing them or pressuring them to drop criminal proceedings.

As a result, while 58 percent of victims last year said they faced some type of “negative behavior,” only 32 percent described circumstances that could legally be described as retribution. This includes professional retaliation, administration actions or punishments. In 2015, 38 percent reported such actions.

“Today’s report disappointedly shows a flat overall reporting rate and a retaliation rate against survivors that remains at an unacceptable six out of ten for a third year in a row,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “This report does not reflect having the good order and discipline that is essential for our military.”

Despite the small increase in reports last year, officials focused on the anonymous survey, which is done every two years and includes a wider range of sexual contact.

In 2012, the survey showed 26,000 service members said they had been victims of unwanted sexual contact, which can range from inappropriate touching and hazing to rape. The numbers enraged Congress and triggered extensive debate over new laws and regulations to attack the problem.

The surveys have shown a steady decline. Monday’s report shows 14,900 cases were reported. Of those, 8,600 were women and 6,300 were men. It marks the first time more women than men said they experienced unwanted sexual contact. There are far more men in the military and the total number of male victims had been higher, even if by percentage, women faced more unwanted contact.

The decrease in reports by men suggests a possible reduction in hazing incidents, officials said.

About 21 percent of women said they had faced sexual harassment, about the same as two years ago. The percentage of men dipped a bit.

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