Women’s History Month Spotlight – Sexual Abuse of Women in the Military

[Updated from original date of post]

There are over 200,000 active-duty servicewomen comprising 14.5% of the total active force of 1.4 million people.


Recently (in part because of the reluctance of some in Congress to renew the Violence Against Women Act), more attention has been given to the rampant sexual abuse of both women and men in the military.

Inappropriately Suggestive WWI Recruitment Poster, part of a historical pattern

Inappropriately suggestive WWI recruitment poster, part of a historical pattern

For example, The New York Times recently ran a harrowing story featuring one of the SIXTY-TWO trainees at Lackland Air Force Base who were victims of assault or other improper conduct by THIRTY-TWO training instructors between 2009 and 2012. Virginia Messick was unable to complain to her superior, because her superior was the one who raped her.

A 2015 study, which was conducted by the RAND corporation and sponsored by the Pentagon, indicated that an estimated 18,900 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel said they were victims of “unwanted sexual contact” in the 2014 fiscal year. (In the surveys, the Pentagon uses the words “unwanted sexual contact” as an umbrella term covering any sexual offense, from inappropriate touching to rape.) This was considered to be good thing, since it compared favorably to the 2012 report of 26,000 military personnel.

This also differs from the official report of the Department of Defense issued in 2015 which gave a number of “only” 6,083 reports of sexual assault for the Fiscal year 2015. (It should also be noted that their figures for “sexual assault” did not include reports of “sexual harassment.” They cite a the figure of 657 formal complaints for this in 2015.) Unveiling the Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for Fiscal Year 2016, Navy Rear Adm. Ann M. Burkhardt, director of DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the report showed 14,900 service members were sexually assaulted in 2016, which is 5,400 fewer than the 20,300 sexual assault victim reports estimated in 2014.

The fiscal 2016 report also shows that one in three service members chose to report their assaults in 2016, which is increased from one in four people in 2014, Burkhardt said, noting that 10 years ago only one in 14 service members reported the crime.

There are a number of factors militating against reporting such incidents, as shown graphically below:


Moreover, it is not as if subjecting oneself to the horrible experience of testifying has positive results. The Military Times reported in 2015:

Last year, 6,131 service members reported a sexual assault.

But only about 317 service members were court-martialed and sentenced to confinement as a result of a reported sexual assault.

The dizzying details underlying that roughly 1-in-20 conviction-and-incarceration rate were buried in the latest annual military sexual assault report released May 1, which reveals how sexual assault complaints were handled by criminal investigators and commanders.”

Retaliation by the military against those who report sexual assaults is an ongoing problem. Human Rights Watch also has condemned the military for this practice.

Documented psychological consequences of military sexual trauma (MST) most frequently include PTSD, impairments of social functioning and quality of life (for example, a study found that more than fifty percent of homeless female veterans had experienced military sexual trauma), chronic pain, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

The Department of Defense, however, claims their investigation process is satisfactory, and that “The Department takes appropriate action in every case where it has jurisdiction and the evidence to do so.”:

This is not the impression one gets either from perusing the trauma experienced by victims, or the figures revealing how many victims do not come forward, although the numbers do seem to be getting better.

Nor does it square with the anecdotal reports of those brave enough to go to the media. Nicole McCoy, for example, who was assaulted several times while in the Marines, said in an NPR interview that her bad experiences started soon after she signed up:

“Back in 2008, I had joined the Marine Corps and within almost exactly a year I was raped while in Afghanistan while I was at work. Continuously had to work with the same guy. He held a 9 millimeter to my head and told me that if I told anyone he’d kill me. And then I left Afghanistan after a couple months, still never told anyone.”

Her story just gets worse:

“…in January of 2010 I was raped while in a hazmat course. And I went back and told one of the Marines that I was there with and I had told him what happened. He said he would contact my staff NCO. The staff NCO told me I needed to wait until I got back to my duty station, as they didn’t have any uniform victim advocates where I was. So when I got back then they told me that I missed the deadline.”

And believe it or not, the abuse continued. She finally left the Corps in 2011. Now she works as an advocate for change in the military and works to support other victims. But it’s an uphill road. As another female vet, Julie, testified on the same show:

“I’m a Vietnam-era vet, and I joined in 1973, and like Nicole, I had multiple experiences with sexual assault. And let me be very clear here: I don’t feel that I’m a victim. This is something that happens to us in the military, because quite often the war that we have is with the guy standing next to us, not necessarily the guy on the other side of the gun.

And let me make a point that I’m not hearing being made: Rank has its privileges, gentlemen, and one of the most important aspects of this argument is that power – power over women is a very, very heady thing in the military. The men who attacked me had rank, and as an enlisted woman, and I wasn’t an enlisted woman the entire time I was in, they had power over me because they had rank. And I did not feel at the time of these assaults that I had the right to make an appeal to anybody else, that I felt that I would have been run out of the Army, and I’d made a commitment to my country.

So I bit on a stick. I kept walking. I didn’t make any appeal, and I simply was the good soldier. And one of the most important aspects of this, and the fundamental problem is that it starts at the top, and – may I point out Petraeus. These guys cannot keep it zipped up. It is at the very, very top ranks. This is an issue of power and the permission to do whatever they want because it comes with rank.”

Read the whole transcript here. And help fight the lack of prosecutions! If there is no punishment, there is no incentive not to continue.

Additional data on sexual assaults in the military is presented in this 2015 article. You can also refer to this “Quick Fact Sheet” about military sexual abuse here. This fact sheet is made available by Protect Our Defenders (POD), the only national organization solely dedicated to ending the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military and to combating a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and retribution against victims. There are a number of excellent resources on their website.

[It should be noted, as indicated above, that while women make up the overwhelming number of victims, sexual abuse is not confined to them. You can read more about sexual assaults of men in the military here.] The Department of Defense shows these statistics:

Picture 2


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17 Responses to Women’s History Month Spotlight – Sexual Abuse of Women in the Military

  1. Sandy says:

    That makes me ill. One more (of dozens) of reasons why I would be incredibly distraught if either of my kids went into the military.

  2. Holy cow, this is disturbing. I’ve read where women reported the assault and were told to keep quiet. The military needs to put a stop to this by prosecuting every single one of those guys.

  3. And this is why I love your blog. Thank you.

  4. Barbara says:

    I wish I knew the answer to this. I can understand why servicewomen don’t report; what’s the use? The only thing I can say is that cops used to have the attitude that anyone who was raped was herself to blame in the 1950s. They didn’t care, and so they didn’t even try to represent the victim. Neither did male lawyers for that matter. Now there is a new protocol to follow, rape kits to be completed, and stiffer penalties. I wish I could be hopeful that attitudes will also evolve in the military but I’m not.

  5. Jenny says:

    This absolutely breaks my heart. I went to a talk a few years ago about PTSD, and one of the women who had been on tours in Afghanistan and then Iraq said that women in her unit weren’t supposed to go to the bathroom alone at night. It was a sexual assault prevention measure. They always had to bring another woman with them. She said even though this felt like more of an inconvenience than a stressor when it was happening, it contributed to this feeling of constant, low-level fear that she had of her own fellow soldiers. So scary and sad.

  6. Trisha says:

    Just horrifying. It amazes me how little people are willing to do to change this attitude of permission in the army. Just a reminder of how little the populace cares about women.

  7. Vasilly says:

    I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. There’s no place safe for women.To read the words, “This is something that happens to us in the military, because quite often the war that we have is with the guy standing next to us, not necessarily the guy on the other side of the gun.” How scary is that?

    • I just finished Criminal by Karin Slaughter in which half the book takes place in the Seventies, and (as she found from the research she did to write the book), the women police also had to be as afraid (if not more so) of their male co-workers as they were of the street criminals. Ugh.

  8. Belle Wong says:

    This is a terrible situation. And I suspect the statistics, being statistics, likely don’t show the full extent of the problem. How this will be solved, I don’t know, but in non-military life things have come a long way in recent years (it wasn’t that long ago that a sexual assault victim would suffer another kind of assault in the courtroom if the case did go to trial) – so perhaps there’s hope that the military will soon catch up.

  9. Lisa says:

    Awful, just awful, that this is not better addressed by the military. I wonder if to some at the top, they have something of an “I told you this was going to happen if women joined the military” attitude.

  10. bookingmama says:

    I hope with more discussion of these problems that there will be more awareness… and ultimately more prosecutions!

  11. Care says:

    Except, as the hearing conducted by Sen. Claire McCaskill shows, even if an officer (or any military personnel) is convicted, the higher ups can dismiss any charges. This shocks and enrages me.

  12. Did you know that more men are raped in the military than women??? There’s a documentary out there that I want to watch that exposes this and hopefully will cause a change in the way these cases are handled.

  13. Ti says:

    So disturbing but not surprising.

  14. Mike Dedrick says:

    The military is a closed, male dominated, top down organization. In the case of rape and sexual abuse of women that can be an asset in dealing with the issue. If the leadership decided that there would be zero tolerance for sexual abuse, it would stop tomorrow. That process would have to take the form of relieving or bringing criminal charges against officers and NCOs implicated in sexual abuse or coverups. Leadership starts at the top, and President Obama could set an example by saying that rape and abuse will not be permitted. The new Secretary of Defense, Hagel, correctly intervened in the case of the Air Force general dismissing a case charging an officer convicted of sexual abuse. The current situation is sickening and intolerable.

  15. Becca says:

    My boyfriend is ex-military yet we have never really talked about this topic. We’ve talked about gays in the military and other stuff, but somehow this never came up. This is something I bet he has a strong opinion on. He didn’t serve closely with women past the first 2 years since he was special forces but I am interested to know what stories he knows. As someone who was sexually attacked on a date once, I have a hard time with this topic as it brings up that experience and I was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape the situation before it escalated to full-blown rape. I can’t imagine the trauma these women go through just to serve their country.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    Makes me sick. I had a friend way back when who I saw after he returned from duty on a ship and he told me there were a couple of girls who slept with every guy on the ship. What a complete nightmare for those girls to be thought of in that way. Who knows what happened to them?

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