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Pentagon sexual assault report shows high rates of perceived retaliation persist

A new Department of Defense report released Friday shows that rates of retaliation against victims remain stubbornly high despite a marked decrease in military sexual assaults and increased reporting of such crimes in the 2014 fiscal year.

Defense secretary Ashton Carter said in a press conference that the Pentagon was committed to tackling problems related to sexual violence.

“One reason the military is among America’s most admired institutions is that we’re a learning organization. We strive to understand and correct our flaws,” Carter said, adding that the “report makes it crystal clear that we have to do more.”

Sixty-two percent of those who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact — an umbrella term describing a range of offenses from unwanted sexual touching to rape — perceived some form of retaliation in connection with reporting the crimes. Due to the small number of male respondents in this category, these figures only apply to servicewomen.

Of this group, more than half said they experienced social retaliation, while about one-third reported suffering adverse administrative action or professional retaliation.

The report calls retaliation against victims an “unacceptable behavior” that needs remediation, but also noted that rates of retaliation may be unreliable because of ambiguities in measurement.

The category of adverse administrative action is one such source of uncertainty because it includes actions that a commander might take to protect victims.  For instance, a commander may transfer victims to get them medical or mental health help, or to remove them from a bad situation. Though such actions may not be intended as retaliation, victims may perceive them that way if their career is harmed or they are transferred to less desirable locations.

Further complicating matters, 11 percent of victims reported being punished for an infraction connected with their assaults, like drug use or underage drinking. While these infractions are forbidden by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, punishing them can constitute retaliation. And doing so may dissuade victims from reporting their assaults for fear of being penalized for such infractions.

According to the report, the percentage of active duty servicewomen who were sexually assaulted in 2014 was 4.9 percent, while one percent of male service members reported assaults. Both numbers are down compared to 2013.

In all, about 20,000 service members — 10,600 men and 9,600 women — are estimated to have been assaulted in 2014.

While the estimated frequency of unwanted contact decreased, reporting of sexual assault cases rose 16 percent in 2014, building on improvements made in 2013, when reporting increased by more than half. Defense officials cite this statistic not as evidence of an increase in assaults, but say the number that are reported his risen as victims feel more comfortable coming forward.

The increase in reporting has been dramatic: The report estimates that about one in four victims reported his or her assault in 2014, up from just one in ten two years earlier.

The report also revises preliminary findings from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study, an independent assessment of sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination that replaced the military’s earlier internal surveys. The RAND survey showed that roughly 72 percent of service members who indicated that they reported sexual assaults said they would make the same decision again, given the chance.

Though the report argues that, overall, those who reported assaults were satisfied with their decisions, more than a quarter appear to regret reporting.

Speaking after Secretary Carter on Friday, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson said, “I share particularly [Secretary Carter’s] concern about retaliation and ostracism.”

“This is an area where we need to dig deeper and learn more so that we can better address these experiences not just related to sexual assault but for the protection of all our people courageously reporting wrongdoing,” Carson said.

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