Even Staying Silent Doesn't Always Spare Sexual Assault Victims from Retaliation, Study Finds

Take Back the Night march on Kadena Air Base, Japan.
Men, women and children united together and marched against sexual assault during the Take Back the Night march on Kadena Air Base, Japan, May 1, 2015. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Omari Bernard)

Perceived retaliation against service members who are victims of sexual assault is rampant in the military, a new study from Rand Corp. found -- even against those who don't officially report their assault.

For the study released Monday, Rand analyzed data collected in 2014 on sexual assaults that occurred in the military, including examining the experiences of those who did not report their assaults or filed only an unreported claim.

The data showed that about 54% of military women who had been sexually assaulted and told either a mandated reporter -- someone who is legally obligated to ensure a report is filed when they know of an incident, such as someone in the victim's chain of command or military law enforcement -- or filed an unrestricted report had experienced either social retaliation, professional retaliation or a combination of the two.

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Of those who filed a restricted report or told a covered reporter, 23% had experienced social retaliation, professional retaliation or both, Rand found. Covered reporters are professionals who are allowed to keep reports of sexual assault confidential, such as therapists, chaplains, victim advocates, medical professionals, legal counsels, and sexual assault response coordinators.

But even victims who stayed silent were not always spared retaliation, the think tank found. More than 17% of victims who told only friends or family experienced some form of retaliation, as did nearly 21% of those who told no one at all.

This is a serious problem, because fear of retaliation can sometimes hold people back from coming forward and reporting assaults, Rand said.

Victims who filed a restricted report and were retaliated against were far more likely to experience professional retaliation than social reprisal, the study found. About 2% of those victims experienced only social retaliation, but nearly 21% experienced professional retaliation or a combination of the two.

In the cases of retaliation against those who told friends, family, covered reporters or no one, Rand said, the person responsible for the retaliation may be the perpetrator, or a friend or colleague of the perpetrator who knows about the assault.

Rand said rates of retaliation may be highest among those who filed unrestricted reports because that launches an investigation and the commander is notified. Many who are involved in such an investigation are supposed to protect the victim's confidentiality, the report said, but some -- such as witnesses -- are under no such obligation.

"As a result, it is possible that knowledge of the assault, the victim, and the victim's report will disseminate more widely through the victim's social and professional network than is true when victims disclose only to friends, family or covered reporters," the report said.

And when more people know about an assault, Rand said, the risk of retaliation increases.

The researchers said it is also possible that those who file an unrestricted report -- a "relatively public step" -- are also those who are more willing to share their story, which could also increase their risk of retaliation.

Rand surveyed more than 170,000 service members in 2014 as part of its assessment of sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the military, at the Defense Department's request.

The report said that in 2014, roughly 20,300 active-duty service members -- 4.9% of women in uniform and 1% of male troops -- had experienced a sexual assault in the previous 12 months. In all, 15% of women and 2% of men in the military had been sexually assaulted at least one time since joining the service, Rand said.

In 2014, 40% of service women who had been sexually assaulted chose to tell no one what had happened. Another 33% told a friend or family member. One-quarter of those filed an unrestricted report or told a mandated reporter, and 2% filed a restricted report or told a covered reporter.

The report said it based its findings on victims' perceptions of whether they had been professionally or socially retaliated against, and acknowledged that the self-reporting approach has limitations. Some victims who believed they had been retaliated against, Rand said, may not have had experiences that would have qualified for legal remedies. But the method had its advantages as well, it said, such as allowing the study to assess potential retaliation against all victims, including those who did not file an official report.

After Congress ordered the Defense Department in 2013 to better define retaliation in such a way that it could be criminally enforced, the military clarified it to include reprisal, ostracism and maltreatment of a sexual assault victim who has filed, or is suspected of filing, an official report of the assault.

In many cases, higher-ranking service members are the ones retaliating against female assault victims, the study found. More than half of female sexual assault victims who had experienced social retaliation, or 56.2%, said they were retaliated against by someone who outranked them, the study said. Rand said that 68% of those victims claimed they were retaliated against by someone of a similar or lower rank, indicating that many experienced retaliation from multiple people. And 11.2% of those victims said they were retaliated against by nonmilitary personnel, the study found.

Rand found the risk of perceived professional retaliation against female victims increases significantly when the perpetrator of a sexual assault is of a higher rank than the victim or is in the victim's chain of command, or when there are multiple perpetrators of the assault.

Female victims also are likely to feel they have suffered professional retaliation in cases where they are injured during the assault, when the incident is related to hazing, when the victims were not drinking, or when the assault occurred in the workplace.

Rand said that there were fewer characteristics significantly associated with social retaliation, though that tended to be more likely in cases where the attack occurred in the workplace, when there were multiple attackers, or when the perpetrators were service members who were known to the victim.

The study found that the risk of perceived social retaliation was lowest in the Air Force, though the likelihood of professional retaliation was similar across all branches. Senior enlisted women were more likely to perceive professional retaliation than junior enlisted women.

When data was controlled for demographics and military factors, the study found, women in the Air Force experienced lower rates of sexual assault than those in other branches. Rand said it is unknown why the Air Force saw lower rates of assault and social retaliation, though it speculated that differences in the service's culture, training, policies or programming may help protect female airmen.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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