Sexual Trauma Remains a Serious Problem in the Military

Sexual Trauma Remains a Serious Problem in the Military

Created: 30 May, 2013
Last update: 14 October, 2022

sexual assault in the military

According to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA14), if a soldier sexually assaults a fellow service member, they have an 86.5 percent chance that their victim won't say anything. Even if the victim comes forward, there is a 92 percent chance the perpetrator will never see a court-martial.

Other disturbing statistics paint a grim picture, including:

  • In 2012, it was estimated that 6.1 percent of the entire active-duty female force had been the victim of military sexual trauma, which was an increase from the previous year, according to a Department of Defense press conference held on May 7. Based upon command climate surveys, that accounts for about 12,000 women.
  • In the same year, the same surveys estimated that 1.2 percent of the active-duty male force suffered military sexual trauma, accounting for about 14,000 men.
  • In 2012, only about 17 percent of incidence were reported, and far fewer were ever prosecuted.
  • The military does not maintain a sex offender registry, which means that offenders can simply be transferred to a new unit or command or voluntarily leave the military and no one would know that they had victimized someone unless they are prosecuted, convicted, and discharged, in which case they are subject to civilian registration laws.
  • A study by Dr. Gene Abel, a leader in sex offender research, found that the average number of victims for an un-incarcerated sex offender is seven. The same study showed that, of those surveyed, 126 men admitted to committing 907 rapes against 882 victims, which means that some were victimized more than once.

"We're all outraged and disgusted over these very troubling allegations. Sexual assault is a despicable crime and one of the most serious challenges facing this department. It's a threat to the safety and the welfare of our people and the health, reputation and trust of this institution," said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the May 7 presser.

"This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need," he added.

Given the widespread accounts of military sexual trauma, occurring from recruiting offices to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office for the Air Force, Hagel's assessment could well be an understatement of the problem.

The Silent Victims

Perhaps one of the most startling realizations for some is that men are victimized just as much as women are. There is still a widespread myth that men can't be sexually assaulted, that they must have "wanted it" or that they are simply being troublemakers. They are nearly always discouraged from reporting the attacks, often having to endure working and living in the same close quarters as their attackers.

According to Brian Lewis, a male survivor, not only do men experience this form of "secondary victimization," there are few services immediately available to male victims afterward, even though the Veteran's Administration reports that 40 percent of those seeking mental health treatment for military sexual trauma were male.

It often takes significantly longer for male victims to seek treatment than female victims -- decades in some cases -- because of the intense shame that male victims experience and the tough-guy culture of the military itself.

Long-Term Costs

While the VA doesn't break down the individual costs associated with treating military sexual trauma, figures show that more than 85,000 veterans sought treatment and more than 4,000 sought disability benefits.

According to the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), the VA spent nearly $872 million on treatment related to military sexual trauma. Whatever the monetary costs of treating military sexual trauma are, it's clear that the number is staggering and only goes up as more victims seek treatment.

According to a May 20 article by the AP, "a veteran with a 50 percent rating and no dependents would get $810 a month. A veteran with a 100 percent rating and a spouse and child to support would get nearly $3,088 a month." This illustrates the wide range of disability payments.

Maintaining Order or Encouraging Predators?

Perhaps one of the hardest questions for victims rights groups is whether or not current policies are maintaining order or encouraging predators.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law that governs the military, is very different from the civilian justice system. It allows individual military commanders enormous power to determine who is punished for perpetrating sexual trauma and what the punishment will be.

Even if the attacker is formally charged, the commander, called the "convening authority," can overturn any decision that a court-martial makes with no explanation as to why and it's all in the name of maintaining military order.

But, there are many who believe that these policies, which are meant to preserve good order, are actually encouraging predators simply because they know there is little chance they will be prosecuted. Often victims, both male and female, are told to "suck it up" and not report the trauma. Even if they do report the assaults, victims are often treated as if they are the ones guilty of a crime.


One thing is clear, the Department of Defense desperately needs a solution -- or several solutions -- to this ongoing problem. Many victims and advocates believe the DoD will make some minor and ineffective policy changes and there will be little to no follow through.

There are currently multiple bills working their way through Congress that would possibly have some impact, but whether or not they will pass remains to be seen.


Author's Note: This article is the first in a series that will take a more in-depth look at military sexual trauma and hopefully offer solutions to help curb this crisis. We owe it to all our men and women in uniform, past and present, to do everything possible to stop this abuse. To echo the sentiment of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, "We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."

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About the Author

Wendy Innes

Wendy Innes has been a freelance journalist since 2007. She is continually pursuing her education in new media journalism. Her interests include military issues, healthcare, politics, women's issues and constitutional rights. Currently based out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, she loves to travel, enjoy the great outdoors and is a military wife, model and mom.