Reports of sexual assault are up in the military for the seventh year in a row, according to the fiscal year 2017 report the Pentagon released this week. All four branches of the military saw a jump in reported incidents over the past year, with a total year-over-year increase of 9.7 percent. By comparison, between fiscal years 2015 and 2016, the number of reports only increased by 1.5 percent.
The Marine Corps saw the biggest spike in sexual assault reports—14.7 percent—while the other three branches documented increases of between 8.4 and 9.3 percent. Since fiscal year 2012, sexual assault reports have increased by more than 88 percent across the entire U.S. military. The number of reported incidents in fiscal year 2017—6,769—is the highest since 2006, the earliest year with public data. The statistics includes cases in which a service member is either the victim of an alleged assault or the subject of a criminal investigation into an alleged assault.
“We consider this large increase in reporting as an indicator that Service members continue to gain confidence in the Department’s sexual assault response system,” Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie said in a letter introducing the fiscal year 2017 report.
Increases in sexual assault reports at any institution are usually seen as a good sign, since sexual assaults are notoriously underreported. Low reporting numbers usually mean that victims fear retaliation by their peers or superiors and don’t expect that their perpetrators will be held accountable by established systems of justice. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report found that survivors of military sexual assault who reported the crimes were often subjected to physical and verbal abuse, ostracized from their peer groups, and denied professional advancement.
In his letter, Wilkie claims that actual occurrence of sexual assault in the military dropped 50 percent for men and 30 percent for women between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, based on responses to a survey of active-duty members that was not given in 2017. About 1 in 3 service members who experienced a sexual assault made a report in 2016, up from 1 in 14 a decade earlier. The fiscal year 2016 survey found about 4.3 percent of military women and 0.6 percent of military men had been sexually assaulted in the prior year.
Nearly equal numbers of men and women are victimized by sexual assault in the military, mainly because fewer than 1 in 5 service members are women. But women are reporting sexual assault at more than twice the rate of men, according to the fiscal year 2017 report. The report outlines ways the four branches tried to destigmatize reporting and prevent retaliation in cases with male victims, including an interactive computer program used by the Army to tell soldiers the real-life story of a man who was assaulted by his unit members. (The computer program allows the man to tell his story across the military, without forcing him to visit each unit and relive his assault.)
The major jump in year-over-year reporting increases—and the spike in reports in the Marine Corps in particular—may owe to the much-publicized nude photo–sharing scandal that started in the Marine Corps and hit all branches of the military. In early 2017, hundreds of veterans and active-duty military personnel came under investigation for distributing thousands of nude photos of female colleagues and other women in secret Facebook groups, Google Drive folders, Tumblrs, 4chan threads, and a site called AnonIB. Groups of men took surreptitious photos of female service members changing, asked the women’s ex-partners to share old nude photos, and encouraged men to post sexualized images women consensually but privately shared with them. The military’s response to these revelations was demoralizing—military law only criminalizes taking nude photos without a subject’s awareness or consent, not distributing nude photos without a subject’s consent. But the ensuing national conversation about entrenched misogyny in the military and the exploitation of the women in its ranks may have emboldened survivors to make known the violations they’ve endured.
Though victims of assault are reporting more often, their accused perpetrators are less likely to face punishment. In fiscal year 2017, 62 percent of cases yielded disciplinary action, down 9 percentage points from 2013. It’s possible that when reporting sexual assault was less common, survivors would only move forward with a formal complaint if there was overwhelming evidence on their side, and the personal threshold for reporting has dropped. The 2017 report says some cases didn’t lead to disciplinary action because the victims didn’t want to “participate in the justice proceedings.” Making survivors feel safe enough to report their assaults doesn’t do much good if they still fear retaliation for appearing before the court-martial.