Contrary to Recent Claims, Data on Military Sexual Assault Understate the Problem

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Last month the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Judge Advocate Generals of the Armed Forces testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on various proposals to combat sexual assault in the military. At the hearing, there was significant confusion among both 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 were included in the estimates, then the data could potentially overstate the severity of the problem of sexual misconduct in the military.

The data do, in fact, distinguish between harassment and sexual assault, although the survey instrument is by no means perfect. The military still needs to improve how it collects data on sexual assaults and sexual misconduct so that we can fully understand the scope of the problem.