Sexual Assault in the Military
By Priscilla Schulz, LCSW-C
Senior PTSD Treatment Trainer
Sexual victimization is a problem in both civilian and military populations. In the general US population lifetime prevalence of sexual assault is 17% and 3% for women and men, respectively. The rate of sexual victimization among male military members is roughly the same as general population. For women in the military, however, the picture is quite different:
Rates of sexual victimization are higher with estimates tending to cluster in the 23% to 33% range (Himmelfarb, Yaeger & Mintz, 2006)
A sizable minority of military women bring a history of sexual victimization when they join the military (Bobstock & Daley, 2007)
Rates of sexual re-victimization are higher for women in uniform than in the civilian world (Bobstock & Daley, 2007)
In whatever realm it occurs, civilian or military, sexual assault is a crime, and, for its victims, is a major, life-threatening, traumatic event from which many do not fully recover (Resick, 1990).
The most commonly observed psychiatric consequence of rape is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Approximately 65% of men and 46% of women who experienced a sexual assault report symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of PTSD (Kessler et al., 1995). Because rape is more highly associated with PTSD than are other traumas (Kessler et al., 1995; Stekettee & Foa, 1987), and because it results in PTSD nearly four times more often than military-related war stress (Fontana & Rosenheck, 1998), it is considered to be one of the most severe traumatic events humans suffer.
Sexual assault has more negative consequences when it occurs during military service. Specifically, it is associated with two times the risk for developing PTSD when rape occurs during military service than if it occurs after discharge (Himmelfarb et al, 2006; Wolfe et al., 1998)). In addition, more so than combat trauma, sexual trauma during military service is associated with multiple other psychological, physical health and readjustment problems when a servicemember returns home from deployment.
Military sexual trauma may have more dire consequences for its victims because of a number of phenomena unique to military life. To begin, among military units home, work and social environments are often co-mingled. Though a contributor to unit cohesion, this phenomenon may make it impossible for a victim to find safety; the victim may encounter the assailant in barracks, at work, or where unit members spend leisure time. The omnipresence of weapons may increase the sense of physical threat during an assault. The need to depend on one another in combat operations may undermine a victims’ resolve to fight off an assault. It may also deter a victim from filing a complaint. When the rapist is the ranking officer, these difficulties are intensified (Sadler et al, 2003). Victims may be fearful of saying “no” to a commanding officer’s advances or attacks, and may fear that bringing charges in the aftermath would put their lives in greater danger. Some victims fear that accusing one’s commanding officer of sexual assault will end the victim’s military career.
Sexual assault in the military has been a highly volatile and sensitive issue. Some have described military culture as “rape conducive” (Morris, 1996, p. 700). In fact, some research has linked the behaviors of ranking officers or immediate supervisors with the frequency of sexual assault of women in the military (Sadler et al., 2003). Defenders of the military point out that the Department of Defense (DoD) has a “zero tolerance” policy on all forms of sexual misconduct. Recent years have seen increased attention to this issue.
Early in 2004 the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force, led by Ms. Ellen Embrey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health, Protection, and Readiness was created to investigate, and to inform and improve Department of Defense policy and response to sexual assault in the military. As a result the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention office (SAPRO) was launched in early 2005 to address this issue at all levels. Specifically:
Prevention through training and education programs
Treatment and support of victims
SAPRO now serves as the Departments single point of authority for sexual assault policy. In addition to its own programs, SAPRO provides oversight to ensure that each branch of the military has sexual assault prevention and victim care programs that comply with DoD policy.
In a recent interview with American Force Press (March 17, 2009) Dr. Kaye Whitley, Director of DoD’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office (SAPRO) stated, “Our goal is to strengthen the knowledge and the skills of servicemembers and empower them to identify and safely intervene in situations that may lead up to sexual assault.” While in the short history of SAPRO there has seen an increase in reports of sexual assault, this occurrence may reflect success on the part of the program. Dr. Whitley comments, “Sexual assault harms our people and erodes our mission readiness. The department remains committed to aggressively pursuing increased reporting of sexual assault, providing first-class care and preventing this crime before it occurs.”
For further information contact: www.sapr.mil Contact a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) or Victim Advocate (VA) Local information provided by your Military Service
Contact Air Force Personnel Center 24/7 for Restricted/Unrestricted Reporting, Local SARC/VA Points of Contact, and Established DoD Sexual Assault Services.
Stateside: 1-800-342-9647 Overseas: 00-800-3429-6477 Overseas Collect: 1-484-530-5908
Contact: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Hours of Operation: 0800 - 1700 Email: SAPRO@wso.whs.mil
Phone: 703-696-9422 DSN: 426-9422