Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Women, military academies, and sexual assault

According to annual reports from the Department of Defense, the three U.S. military academies had 34 reported sexual assaults last year, and they estimate that the number represents only 10% of the actual assaults. Officials want to do something about the low reporting rate, encouraging victims to come forward. (One presumes that they also want to do something about the incidence, and that’s another issue.)

Let’s take a moment to churn some numbers:

There are about 13,000 students at the three military academies, and about 20% of them, 2600, are women. 34 reported sexual assaults in a population of 13,000 gives a rate of about 260 per 100,000. Now, in the general population, women are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than men, but there are disproportionately more men in this sample. If we assume the “ten times more likely” rate holds at the military academies as well,[1] and if we assume about an equal number of women and men in the general population, and normalize the numbers at the military academies to compensate, we get an adjusted rate of nearly 600 per 100,000.[2] With an estimated reporting rate of 10%, that gives a rate of nearly 6000 sexual assaults per 100,000 cadets.

Compare this with the general population, where the reporting rate for rape is now on the order of 20%.[3] The 2007 figures for the U.S. as a whole are 30 reported rapes per 100,000 population, which, with a 20% reporting rate would mean 150 actual rapes per 100,000.

Of course, even apart from my hand-waving in adjusting the numbers, these figures aren’t directly comparable: the military numbers are for all kinds of sexual assaults, while the U.S. numbers are specifically for rape. I couldn’t find comparable figures for general sexual assaults, at least not quickly. I also couldn’t find figures for the percentage of sexual assaults that are rapes. What I did find is that the number of victims who say they’ve been sexually assaulted is about twice the number who say they’ve been raped. It’s not clear what, exactly, I can conclude from that.[4]

So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that only 10% of the instances of sexual assault are rapes — and I acknowledge that I’ve just pulled that number out of the air.[5] That would give an adjusted rape rate of 600 per 100,000 at the academies, compared with 150 per 100,000 in the general population... making rape 4 times as prevalent in the military setting.


OK, that took more than a moment, so let’s get away from specific numbers and just say that sexual assaults are clearly more prevalent in an environment that teaches and demands discipline, camaraderie, and trust, and that might seem shocking. The reason for the lower rate of reporting is clear: it’s extremely detrimental to one’s success at a military academy, or, indeed, in the military itself, to be known as someone who “tells”. One’s expected to deal with the problem oneself, whether or not one has the wherewithal to do so, and to keep officially quiet, in any case.

The irony is that the point is to ensure that members of a military unit can trust each other when they have to, in a combat situation... while at the same time, the victims, who are expected to show they can be trusted not to “snitch”, have had their trust utterly violated. If they can’t trust their compatriots not to rape them, how can they trust them with their lives?

And, of course, it’s all about control. They’ve let women in, and the men have to accept it, but they don’t have to like it. And they’ll be damned if they won’t make it clear who’s boss.

Those are the issues that have to be broken through, beyond what we have to deal with for the general public:

  • Remove the very real social and career obstacles to reporting offenses.
  • Remove the ability for men to use sexual assault as a way to gain superiority over women in this environment.

I don’t think the latter is as insurmountable a task as it would be outside the military. There are levels of control available there that don’t exist in the world at large, and violators can be held to account more readily, with more severe consequences (that start with immediate expulsion from the academy, and go on to criminal prosecution in courts martial).

The question is whether they’re really willing to take the necessary steps.

[1] There’s certainly reason to believe that it’s not. With 80% men and the sort of environment we’re talking about, it’s quite possible that sexually-based hazing, done by men, to men, pushes the proportion of male victims up. On the other hand, the very prevalence of men and the tendency to give women less consideration could push the proportion in the other direction. Lacking any numbers, though, I just have to go with this assumption.

[2] One can argue about the normalization, which I made by assigning about 90% of the reports to women and 10% to men, and then adjusting the numbers to even out the numbers of men and women.

[3] I say “on the order of,” but some estimates are much lower, and some are higher. Several sources show the late 1990s rates at 16%, and it’s been getting better since. Still, I’ve seen current estimates as low as 7% and as high as 30%.

[4] Specifically, the number of victims and the number of incidents are very different things, since one may be the victim of more than one incident. Also, I’m not sure whether the number of rapes is included in the sexual assault question or not... and since these figures are self-reported, I’m not sure how many those surveyed included them and how many did not.

[5] Really, I completely made it up. The reality could be that fully 50% are rapes... or that it’s only 1%. I suspect it’s really somewhere between 10% and 30%, but I can’t support that with any data, so I’ve picked the low end of my guessed range.

No comments: