Military grapples with stigma of men reporting sexual assault
Though survey results released by the Pentagon last week suggest the number of sexual assaults in the military has decreased, a new, matter-of-fact way of asking questions has revealed far higher rates of penetrative sexual assault — such as rape and sodomy — than in previous years.
The difference was particularly striking for men who said they had been assaulted, with the percentage of sexual assaults that were penetrative rising from 11 percent when the question was asked as it had been in previous surveys, to 35 percent with the new questions.
For women, penetrative assaults increased from 29 percent to 43 percent under the new methodology.
The numbers could help military leaders and lawmakers better understand the types of attacks that are happening, and the way victims understand the crimes.
The Pentagon has conducted an anonymous survey of troops every two years since 2006, and in 2012, the results indicated 26,000 troops had experienced “unwanted sexual contact” — raising alarm about servicemember safety and questions about what the survey actually measured. In response to pressure from Congress and other critics, the Defense Department hired Rand Corp. to administer the 2014 survey.
Rand researchers used the previous survey questions on some of the troops, so the results could be compared to prior numbers, but also used new methodology to provide results that better line up with DOD definitions of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment.
Previously, respondents were asked if they had been raped or otherwise penetratively assaulted — a question some are unable to answer because of unfamiliarity with legal definitions, researchers said. The new survey asks questions about different physical acts and body parts without ascribing sexuality to them.
Some troops complained about the new questions, saying they were too explicit or prying. But as a result of those questions, study co-author Andrew Morral said, assaults such as those related to male-on-male hazing could now be included in the data.
“They don’t have to be perceived as sexual by the victim,” said Morral, a senior behavioral scientist.
The results of the survey also indicated that while a greater raw number of military men are sexually assaulted than military women, only about 10 percent of those men report the attacks, while about 40 percent of women report.
Brian Lewis, co-founder and president of the advocacy group Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma, said many men are afraid to come forward and report that they were the victim of a sexual assault, and that when men do come forward, there aren’t programs or policies in place to help them.
“In the military, a culture of manliness is expected of the men who serve in uniform, and being the victim of this type of crime can have some serious repercussions” on a man’s status within his unit, Lewis said.
Lewis served in the Navy from 1997 to 2001, when he was discharged after he said he was sexually assaulted by a fellow sailor and then misdiagnosed with a personality disorder. When he sought help from the VA, he learned that virtually all sexual assault survivor support groups and victims’ services are designed for women and located in women’s centers.
Even when men do try to file an official report, they may be discouraged by their superiors, Lewis said.
“They can be told that this type of thing really doesn’t happen to men. Or asked, ‘Did you actively seek it out from him?’” he said.
In May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel highlighted the fact that while most discussions of sexual assault focuses on female victims, estimates continue to show that more than half of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men.
Thursday, he said the military still has a long way to go to overcome the barriers that prevent men from reporting.
Despite the stigma, the Army has seen an increase in men reporting sexual assault, which is a positive sign, said Christine Altendorf, director of the Army’s sexual assault prevention and response office. But that is just the beginning, she said.
Up until now, the Army has generally been gender neutral in its training, but “gender neutral is really not good enough right now,” Altendorf said. “We need to do more.”
According to the 2014 report, 27 percent of the 2,113 people who filed unrestricted reports of sexual assault in the Army were male.
The Marine Corps also is working to increase awareness that male Marines can be victims of sexual assault, said Col. Scott Jensen, head of the Marine Corps’ Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch.
Of the 844 official reports of sexual assault in the Marine Corps in 2014, 21 percent of victims were male, 74 percent were female and 5 percent did not self-identify in the report.
Male victims are already featured in training and discussion group videos, and the Corps in September convened a working group to discuss myths about male sexual assault, dispel stereotypes and come up with possible initiatives, he said.
The Corps also has plans to use social media and public service announcements to address the myths and stigmas surrounding male victims of sexual assault, Jensen said.
Still, Lewis said the services must abandon the idea that PowerPoint presentations and videos can fix the sexual assault problem in the military. He suggested bringing in real survivors of sexual assault to talk to troops, and making sure messages are being pushed far beyond the walls of the Pentagon.
“People are squeamish about talking about male sexual assault,” he said. “People are going to have to get un-squeamish.”