Military's big jump in sexual assault reports: outrage or sign of progress?

US service members reported 5,000 rapes or sexual assaults in 2013, up from 3,400 in 2012, the Pentagon reports. Military officials see greater willingness to report such crimes. Critics see an unaddressed 'epidemic.'

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters about the Defense Department's sexual assault prevention and response program, Thursday, May 1, 2014, at the Pentagon. Hagel said sexual assaults are a threat to both women and men in uniform. And he says the Pentagon must do more to fight a culture that discourages victims from reporting assault.

Reports of sexual assault and rape are up 50 percent across the US military, according to a Pentagon report released Thursday – an increase that top defense officials acknowledge is “unprecedented.”

From 2012 to 2013, total reports jumped to more than 5,000, up from 3,400.

The news drew criticism from advocates for victims, who warn that the Pentagon report “highlights the severity of the military’s sexual assault epidemic.”

In response, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued several new initiatives Thursday, including some designed to reach out to men, who make up half of all victims of sexual assault in the military. 

“We have to fight the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting and be clear that sexual assault does not occur because a victim is weak, but rather because an offender disregards our values and the law,” Secretary Hagel said. “Input from male victims will be critical in developing these methods and will be closely monitored so we can make them more effective.” 

The figures include reported sexual assaults made by service members, whether the alleged perpetrators are in the military or are civilians.

Pentagon officials will also launch a review of institutional alcohol policies, “including the risk that alcohol is used as a weapon against victims in a predatory way,” Mr. Hagel added, noting that perpetrators may incapacitate victims by encouraging them to drink. Drinking by victims, especially those who are under age, may also be a tool attackers use to discredit them later, he said.

This was not enough to assuage victims' advocates. “The persistent stream of reports suggests the military is either unwilling or incapable of solving this crisis, and further underscores the need for strong action from our elected leaders,” says Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for troops who have been sexually assaulted.

Defense officials, for their part, see the rise in sexual-assault reports as heartening, because it demonstrates that service members who experience sexual violence are becoming more comfortable about coming forward.

“We believe victims are growing more confident in our system,” Hagel said at a Pentagon briefing Thursday. “Because these crimes are underreported, we took steps to increase reporting – and that’s what we’re seeing.” 

The report is likely to renew calls from Capitol Hill that lawmakers should seize from US military commanders the authority for determining whether to prosecute sexual assault cases. A bill that would have done that failed to advance earlier this year, after a Senate filibuster.

Still, some members of Congress concur with the Pentagon assessment.

“The rise in reporting is encouraging, possibly signaling that legislative and military changes from recent years are having a positive impact,” Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, who co-chairs the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said in a statement Thursday. 

This includes the establishment of a Special Victims Council (SVC) program, which provides each service member who reports a sexual assault with a military lawyer to act as her or his advocate.

That said, “All of this does not obviate the simple fact that these heinous crimes continue to occur at an alarming rate, to both men and women,” Representative Tsongas added. 

On this point, Hagel concurred. “The best way to combat this crime,” he said, “is to prevent it.” 

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