5 Myths About Military Sexual Assault

With military sexual assault numbers on the rise, it is imperative that military leaders and members of Congress separate fact from fiction if they truly wish to see an end to this shameful trend.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Tuesday the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Judge Advocate Generals of the Armed Forces testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on various proposals to combat sexual assault in the military. Testimony was offered in the wake of the release of the Defense Department’s annual report showing that despite the military’s efforts to ramp up sexual assault prevention programs in recent years, rates of sexual assault in the military climbed by 34 percent between 2010 and 2012. A total of 26,000 service members are estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012 compared to 19,300 in 2010. Moreover, less than 3 out of every 100 estimated sexual assaults in the military in 2012 were ever prosecuted—a shockingly low percentage that has shown no sign of improvement.

Last month two high-profile cases involving sexual assault prevention personnel raised grave concerns about the credibility of those in charge of the military’s sexual assault prevention program. The head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was arrested for alleged sexual battery of a woman in a parking lot. In a separate incident, a noncommissioned officer who was tasked with sexual assault prevention at Fort Hood is under investigation for sexually abusing his subordinates.

Despite these and other stories and the alarming evidence that there is a need for an aggressive response, critics of reform have offered a number of erroneous perspectives aimed at defending the status quo.

Here are five common misconceptions—better still, myths—about military sexual assault and reform efforts.

Myth No. 1: Lifting the ban on women in combat will contribute to higher rates of sexual assault

Opponents of lifting the ban on women in ground combat positions attribute the rising rates of sexual assault to women’s close proximity to combat and to men assigned to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some argue that women’s allegations of sexual harassment are based on a misinterpretation of the “rough camaraderie” that male troops engage in to build unit cohesion and that service women should “expect” to be sexually assaulted by their brothers in arms.

But these critics stand at odds with the highest ranking military officer in the United States, who believes that lifting the ban on women in ground combat positions will decrease rates of sexual assault in the military. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated earlier this year that:

When you have one part of the population that is designated as ‘warriors’ and one part that is designated as something else, that disparity begins to establish a psychology that — in some cases — led to that environment [of sexual assault]. I have to believe the more we treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.

In other words, because combat roles are the most honored and prestigious roles in the military, excluding women from these roles subjugates them to second-class status among fellow service members and actually contributes to sexual violence within the ranks.

Myth No. 2: Military sexual assault is a “women’s issue”

Another reason why allowing women into combat positions is an insufficient explanation of rising rates of sexual assault is because it ignores the fact that more than half—53 percent—of victims of sexual assault in the military are men. In 2012 of the 26,000 military personnel estimated to have experienced sexual assault, 14,000 were men and 12,000 were women. Because of this, it is even more important that military leaders and members of Congress do not conflate sexual assault with their personal opinions on women serving in the military and in combat zones.

It is similarly incorrect to believe that the higher number of male victims of sexual assault is a result of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that prohibited gay and lesbian military members from serving openly. The data show that repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has not contributed to an increase of sexual assaults committed against men. Furthermore, the military has reported time and again that repeal of the law has had no negative impact on military readiness or national security.

Men are not often considered in the context of military sexual assault because they are far less likely to report attacks than their female counterparts. A mere 1 in 10 victims of sexual assault who filed unrestricted reports in 2012 were male, and only 2 out of every 10 victims who filed restricted reports were men. If the data suggest anything, it is that the high rate of sexual assault is a military issue, not a women’s issue.

Myth No. 3: Reforming the military criminal justice system means putting sexual assault cases in the hands of civilians

In the military, vesting power within the command structure is fundamental to ensuring the success and readiness of the armed forces, but recent scandals have exposed how commanders’ discretion in the criminal justice system frequently fails to bring justice to victims of military sexual assault. The military criminal justice system is unique in that it allows commanders absolute discretion in decisions that determine both whether an offender will be prosecuted for sexual misconduct and the ultimate consequence upon conviction. The Manual for Courts Martial currently maintains that the officer who determines whether or not a criminal case goes to trial is in the chain of command of the accused service member. Moreover, commanders—who lack legal training and may present a conflict of interest—have the authority to overturn, lessen, or modify convictions. Earlier this year a general officer overturned a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction, which was decided by a panel of six colonels, with the flick of a pen, stating that the attacker “adored his wife and 9-year old son.” The incident became the center of a national controversy and demonstrated the flaws in allowing such command discretion in military criminal proceedings.

Judicial models that are currently under consideration involve taking the authority to prosecute out of the chain of command by creating an independent judiciary within the military justice system itself. It does not, however, mean placing authority in the hands of the civilian system.

Myth No. 4: The data on sexual assault in the military overstate the problem

At Tuesday’s hearing there was significant confusion among senators and military officials as to whether sexual harassment was included in the Defense Department’s estimates that 26,000 sexual assaults were committed in the armed forces between 2011 and 2012. Some indicated that if sexual harassment was included in the data, then it could potentially overstate the severity of the problem of sexual misconduct in the military.

But the methodology of the report makes clear that the Defense Department’s data do not capture sexual harassment in its estimates of sexual assault. The report states that the department uses the term “sexual assault” to “refer to the crimes of rape, nonconsensual sodomy, abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit those offenses.” Sexual harassment—which includes behaviors ranging from verbal or written language of a sexually degrading nature directed toward another to putting a person’s job, pay, or career at risk if they do not comply with sexual demands—does not fall into the category of crimes that would count as “sexual assault” in the Defense Department’s estimates.

Nonetheless, it is critical that lawmakers and military officials do not perceive sexual harassment as an offense distinct and unrelated to sexual assault for the reasons articulated below.

Myth No. 5: Offender accountability alone will entirely fix the military’s sexual assault problem

Developing a strategy to address sexual assault in the military without tackling attitudes about women in the military is like trying to fight a war without an enemy. As stated above, more than half of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men, but the proportion of attacks against female service members is much higher than those against males. Female service members account for 15 percent of the armed forces, but they were 46 percent of those estimated to have been victims of sexual assault in the military in 2012. Meanwhile, 90 percent of alleged perpetrators were male. What’s worse, 62 percent of victims who reported attacks in 2012 said that they were retaliated against both professionally and socially for reporting those crimes.

Military leaders have recognized that they must eradicate sexist attitudes in order to change a culture that is hostile to service women and contributes to high rates of sexual assault. Last month the director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, stated that sexism and harassment in the military have created a “permissive environment” in which sexual assaults can occur. In the week preceding that statement, Secretary of Defense Hagel ordered inspections of military facilities to remove sexually explicit and degrading material after Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) called on military leaders to investigate a Facebook page that promoted vulgar and violent content aimed at female Marines.

As Maj. Gen. Patton pointed out, “There is a correlation between sexual harassment and sexual assault.” Regardless of the structure that ultimately results from reform of the military justice system, the military must address an institutional culture that degrades and perpetuates inequality against female service members.


The military prides itself as an institution of leadership and integrity. Everyday service members can and do conduct themselves with the high degree of professionalism that we have come to expect of our nation’s military forces. But when it comes to sexual assault, the military’s track record is getting steadily worse. Just this past week the Pentagon reported that the U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three members of the academy’s football team sexually assaulted a female midshipman. This week academy officials at West Point disbanded the club rugby team in response to a crude email chain that was both hostile and degrading toward women, including their female classmates. This country should cringe at the thought of what the upcoming week might reveal, as it seems that with every passing week, another story involving sexual violence and scandal in the military makes headlines.

With military sexual assault numbers on the rise, it is imperative that military leaders and members of Congress separate fact from fiction and leave no option off the table if they truly wish to see an end to this shameful trend. The status quo is, by all measures, failing.

Lindsay Rosenthal is the Research Assistant for Women’s Health and Rights and Health Policy at the Center for American Progress. Katie Miller is the Research Assistant at the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center

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Lindsay Rosenthal

Research Assistant

Katie Miller

Research Associate