Reported sex assaults in the US military have dropped. That reverses what had been a growing problem

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of reported sexual assaults across the military decreased last year, and a confidential survey found a 19% drop in the number of service members who said they had experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact, according to new figures obtained by The Associated Press. Both are dramatic reversals of what has been a growing problem in recent years.

More than 29,000 active-duty service members said in the survey that they had unwanted sexual contact during the previous year, compared with nearly 36,000 in the 2021 survey, according to several defense officials. The decrease is the first in eight years.

At the same time, 8,515 sexual assaults were reported last year involving members of the U.S. military, a decrease from 8,942 in 2022. And officials said the U.S. military academies also saw fewer reported sexual assaults in the school year that ended last spring versus the previous year.

President Joe Biden hailed the improved numbers as he spoke Wednesday to his military commanders, who were gathered at the White House.

“I’m proud that for the first time in nearly a decade, rates of sexual assault and harassment are, within the active-duty forces, are down. They’re down. That’s because of your leadership,” Biden said.

Senior defense officials said the assault numbers are still far too high and there is much more work to do, but they expressed cautious optimism that the military could be turning a corner, with help from an array of new programs and increased personnel. Sexual assault reports in the military have gone up for much of the last decade, except for a tiny decrease in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been publicly released.

While it’s difficult to point to any one reason for the recent decreases, the Defense Department has been making a series of changes over the past year that officials say may be contributing to the shift. The services are using an infusion of more than $1 billion in the last two budgets to improve programs and hire up to 2,500 personnel as part of a new “prevention workforce” and place them at military installations around the world. So far, more than 1,000 have been hired.

The Pentagon releases a report every year on the number of sexual assaults reported by or about troops. But because sexual assault is a highly underreported crime, the department does a confidential survey every two years to get a clearer picture of the problem. That survey is conducted online.

The data for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 also suggests that a greater percentage of service members came forward to report sexual assaults, which has been a key goal for the Defense Department. About 25% of those who said on the survey that they had faced unwanted sexual contact reported it last year, compared with 20% in 2021, according to defense officials and documents reviewed by the AP.

Defense officials have long argued that an increase in reported assaults is a positive trend because so many people are reluctant to report them, both in the military and in society as a whole. Greater reporting, they say, shows there is more confidence in the reporting system and greater comfort with the support for victims, and results in a growing number of offenders being held accountable.

But the Pentagon and the military services also have come under persistent criticism and pressure from members of Congress to reduce sexual assaults and harassment in the military. Service leaders and lawmakers have all argued that the sexual assaults and harassment contribute to the military's struggles to meet recruiting goals.

Alarmed members of Congress have enacted a number of changes, including a new prosecution system that uses independent lawyers. Lawmakers argued that some commanders failed to take victims’ complaints seriously or tried to protect those in their units who faced accusations, making victims reluctant to come forward.

The services have long worked to develop programs to prevent sexual assaults, encourage reporting and bolster confidence in the system. The Army, for example, has a new training program for soldiers when they report to their first duty station that shows service members acting out dangerous situations and teaches troops how to respond.

The number of reported sexual assaults decreased across all the military services, which is a marked improvement over the 2022 fiscal year, when the number of sexual assaults in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all shot up significantly. A 9% drop in Army reports in 2022 offset the increases in the other branches so that there was an uptick of about 1% for the whole military. The Army is the largest military service.

According to officials, the number of sexual assaults reported in the Army decreased from 3,718 in 2022 to 3,507 last year, while the Navy went from 2,052 to 1,942 and the Air Force from 1,928 to 1,838. The Marine Corps had the smallest decline, going from 1,244 to 1,228.

Included in the 8,515 total were 541 service members who reported an assault that occurred before they entered the military and 612 civilians who said they were assaulted by a member of the military.

At the military academies, the number of assaults dipped from 155 in 2022 to 124 in the 2023 school year. Service commanders are still working, however, to address what was a dramatic spike in 2022.

The latest survey also showed that nearly a quarter of all active-duty women said they’d faced sexual harassment, a decrease from the 28.6% in 2021.

One troubling area continues to be female service members' satisfaction with the help they get when they make a complaint and their overall trust in the system and their leaders.

While a large percentage of victims seek out sexual assault response staff, fewer than 70% are happy with the services they get. And that hasn't changed much over the past several years. Roughly the same percentage says they trust the military to respect and protect them and their privacy.

Officials said the hiring of more permanent, full-time workers will help improve that process.

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Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed.

05/16/2024 02:24 -0400

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