Service members sexually harassed more likely to be sexually assaulted: Pentagon study

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The Pentagon, home of the U.S. Department of Defense in Arlington, Va. 

Service members who are sexually harassed in the military are more likely to become sexually assaulted, according to a new study commissioned by the Defense Department (DOD).

The study, released on Tuesday and conducted by Rand Corp., found that sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are “strongly linked,” with female service members who experienced sexual harassment 14 times more likely to indicate that they were also sexually assaulted. 

The odds were even worse for male service members. The study found that men who were sexually harassed in the past year were almost 50 times more likely to have been sexually assaulted in the same time period compared to those who had not recently experienced sexual harassment. 

The study concludes that when sexual harassment is allowed to occur, it increases the likelihood that sexual assault will occur within the unit, and that the U.S. military should treat sexual harassment and assault as a “single underlying disorder,” instead of separate problems. 

The findings come as the Biden administration has begun a new push to address the pervasive issue of sexual assault and harassment in the military.

President Biden last week ordered the launch of a civilian-led commission to address the problem. Lynn Rosenthal, formerly the first White House adviser on violence against women and a prominent gender violence expert, will lead the effort.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made it clear that tackling military sexual assault and harassment is one of his top priorities. 

But the longstanding problem has been difficult to pin down. Even as the Pentagon has thrown resources at the issue over the past 10 years, the number of reported instances of sexual assault has continued to rise in the military.

The military’s struggles were put on prominent display in a viral video released last month in which a distressed female Marine expressed frustration at how a senior Marine Corps official allowed a fellow Marine to stay in the service after he sexually assaulted her, despite admitting guilt.

Austin, who told reporters he watched the video, said he found it “deeply disturbing.”

And in December, 14 leaders at Fort Hood, Texas, were relieved or suspended from their positions after an independent review of the base’s command was ordered to examine years of allegations of sexual assault and violence.

On average, female service members were 1.5 times more likely to be at risk of sexual assault when they worked in environments where sexual harassment was more common. And male service members’ sexual assault risk increased by a factor of 1.8 when working in such environments, the report found. 

Certain military services were also more of a risk than others. Navy sailors were more than twice as likely to be sexually assaulted when working within units where sexual harassment occurred. The Air Force, meanwhile, was the least likely to report sexual harassment within units.

The report concludes that disciplining service members for sexual harassment could diminish the likelihood of an assault further down the line, and it is easier to handle than the latter, as it is usually more visible. Sexual assault, by contrast, typically occur in private with only the victim and perpetrator present. 

“There are many more opportunities for colleagues to deliver social sanctions that communicate the unacceptability of the sexual harassment and for supervisors and commanders to deliver professional sanctions,” the report states. 

“Because sexual harassment can span from minor, inappropriate behavior to repeated, severe sexual harassment, there are also opportunities to sanction sexual harassment while the consequences are still relatively mild and more easily delivered.”

Tags Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Sexual assault sexual assault in the military sexual harrassment Sexual violence US Airforce US Navy
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