Reports of sexual assaults at the US military’s elite service academies rose sharply last year, according to a new Pentagon report released Thursday.
The report, which included a survey collected by the Defense Department’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, showed a 27% rise in unwanted sexual contacts — from 117 reports the previous year to 149 in 2018-2019.
But Pentagon officials characterized the findings as “encouraging,” and cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the report, asserting the jump in reported incidents should not be interpreted as a “increase in crime rate.”
“The Department recognizes the challenge of combatting sexual assault in the Military Service Academies and the high cost of not succeeding,” Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, said in a statement.
The report said 130 of the 149 accusations were leveled against active-duty cadets or midshipmen. Fifty seven of the incidents were reported at West Point, 33 at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and 40 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Of the victims, 122 were enrolled at the service academies. Five active duty service members filed reported assaults, as did three civilian victims.
The rise in assaults has revived questions about the Pentagon’s overall strategy to combat sexual violence – and if it’s failing.
“A stereotypical male culture”
Cadets and midshipmen interviewed for the report acknowledged “a stereotypical male culture” exists at the service academies.
Efforts to change the “boy’s club” attitude, the report said, were unsuccessful.
In the focus groups and interviews for report, cadets and midshipmen told Pentagon officials that sexually harassing behaviors were widely viewed as not that serious or even “normal” within the service academies.
The report also found that the culture at the each of the branches’ feeder institutions creates a trickle-down effect: fewer reported assaults.
The report noted cadets and midshipmen share common beliefs about reporting — that it takes too long, rarely ends in the victim’s favor and forces victims to re-live their trauma.
Students, according to the report, said they feared social or professional retaliation within their unit after making a report decreases the chances they will come forward.
Cadets and midshipmen, the report found, believe they will not only be retaliated against by their peers but that their academic and military careers will be jeopardized if they were to file a report.
This perception of reporting at the academies seemingly translated to the actual reports of sexual violence in the academy system.
More than half of the students who reported being sexually assaulted last year requested that their reports be confidential, or restricted. Restricted reports do not prompt formal investigations by military officials.
One point that the report emphasized repeatedly was that the rate of sexual assault at the academies was in line with that of civilian colleges and universities.
“Despite this apparent national upward trend in sexual assault, the Department holds itself, and the academies, to a higher standard of behavior,” the report stated.
Advocates for military sexual assault victims described the military’s rendering of the facts as misleading.
“It’s another year, another dismal report that the Pentagon’s stubborn and selfish obstruction of reform is hurting the force and devastating survivors,” Don Christensen — president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization devoted to ending rape and sexual assault in the military — told CNN.
Christensen, a veteran military judge who also served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor between 2010 and 2014, disputed the military’s reading of its findings.
“Sexual assault reports are up because assaults are up,” Christensen said.
He added: “Reports going up is only good if two things happen: the rate of sexual assaults is going down, and you’re actually holding people accountable when survivors come forward. But neither of those things are happening.”
The report drew immediate, bipartisan criticism from members of Congress, and raised the possibility of increased congressional scrutiny of the military’s efforts to curtail sexual assault in its ranks.
“It should absolutely lead to greater scrutiny,” Rep. Brian Mast, a combat veteran and Florida Republican, told CNN. “It’s clear that more must be done from our country’s and our military’s leaders to address this crisis.”
On Twitter, Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, called for immediate changes among military leadership, saying she is tired of “excuses.”
“For all those generals who say we have zero tolerance, explain to me why 122 sexual assaults occurred at our premier military academies last year?” Speier asked, rhetorically.
“It’s time for heads to roll,” she said.