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The U.S. military's sex assault problem isn't getting better

Reports of assault in the military are rising faster than the number of convictions.

by Christianna Silva
Apr 30 2018, 7:00pm

This article has been corrected.

The U.S. military has released its annual report on sexual assault, and it shows that while reports of assaults are up, convictions for alleged perpetrators of assault are not increasing at the same rate.

Overall reports of assaults increased 10 percent across all branches of service in 2017 to 6,769 cases, up from the 6,172 reported in fiscal year 2016, according to the Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Assault in the Military. That increase was driven largely by a surge in reporting from the U.S. Marine Corps, which was hit by the “Marines United” scandal where service members shared explicit images of female service members in a private Facebook group.

Despite the increase in reports, the number of U.S. military members receiving some kind of discipline for assault or harassment increased 8 percent, to 1,446 in 2017 from 1,331 disciplinary actions taken in 2016.

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Pentagon officials chalk this up to increased reporting due to a higher degree of confidence that reports will be handled fairly and without reprisals. The overall number of sexual assault reports in the military have nearly tripled in the past decade.

However, critics argue that there’s little reason to conclude the higher numbers are due to a boost in confidence and not an increase of sexual assaults.

“An increase in reporting is only good if it leads to justice,” Lydia Watts, CEO of the Service Women's Action Network, said in a statement on Monday. “It hasn't. Despite the increase in reporting, actual convictions from sexual assault reports have decreased over the last three years. The military is encouraging victims to come forward, and when they do, it hangs them out to dry.”

Furthermore, the fear of facing retaliation is very real for victims. While 73 percent of service members surveyed said they would recommend other service members report their sexual assault, about 40 percent said they faced retaliation after they reported their assault, the new report shows.

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Of the 6,172 reports of sexual assault, the highest spike in reports was in the Marine Corps, which allotted 998 cases, up 14.9 percent from the year before. Since the “Marines United” scandal in 2017, the Pentagon has issued new training and policies targeting sexual harassment. Despite that VICE News exposed an offshore trove of military revenge porn in February 2018.

Army reports were up 8.4 percent, Navy reports were up 9.3 percent, and Air Force reports were up 9.2 percent.

The report also showed a big spike in “unrestricted” reports by male victims, which were up more than 15 percent.

“Male participants also believed there has been an increase in the number of male service members willing to come forward and report a sexual assault and/or make a sexual harassment complaint,” the report stated.

Service members are allowed to make either unrestricted reports, which trigger law enforcement investigations, or restricted reports, which do not.

Of the over 2,000 restricted reports in 2017, about 24 percent later converted their reports to unrestricted reports, allowed law enforcement to investigate their cases. Of all the cases that were unrestricted, the department took disciplinary action on about 62 percent of them.

Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the number of sexual assaults in the military doubled over the last decade. In fact, the number of sexual assault reports have nearly tripled over the last decade.

Cover image: A U.S. Marine of the 2nd Battallion, 1st Marines Weapons Company returns to a base after a joint patrol with Afghanistan National Army soldiers in Laki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan on March 3, 2011. (Photo: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

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