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Male on male sexual assault in the military: Overlooked and hard to fix, investigation finds

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan in 2012. (Photo by 1st Lt. Jason Uhlig/ U.S. Army)
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Here’s a scenario: A male U.S. service member is hanging out with others from his unit at a barbecue when he realizes he has had too much alcohol to drink. He’s taken back to his barracks to sleep it off, but wakes up several hours later to be “teabagged” — with another man putting his scrotum on his face.

That notional situation was sketched out by officials with the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, in survey interviews with 122 American male service members across the country. Forty-eight of them — more than a third — said they have heard about something like that happening, the GAO said in investigative findings released Thursday. Thirty-four service members — more than a quarter — interviewed believed the scenario happens occasionally (21), sometimes (nine) or regularly (four), the new GAO report said.

The new report adds to the growing conversation about sexual assault in the military, which senior military officials and the White House have both said repeatedly needs to addressed. But the GAO focused this time on an angle that is less commonly discussed: sexual assaults by men on men.

The investigation found that while the Defense Department has made a number of changes in an attempt to reduce sexual assault in the military, the number of people who report sexual assault is about 40 percent for women, and 13 percent for men. The statistics don’t apply only to rape, but to a variety of activities that can be considered hazing, in which someone is initiated into a group through humiliation or abuse.

GAO investigators who traveled to Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.; Fort Bliss, Tex.; and Norfolk Naval Base, Va.; found that although both hazing and sexual assault are against the law in the military, both continue to occur, and some of the incidents should be considered both.

“For example, victim advocates and prosecutors at one installation described a series of escalating incidents that began with hitting the victim in the crotch, then throwing objects at the victim’s crotch, and ultimately then saying the hazing would stop if the victim performed oral sex on the assailants,” the report said. “These service officials added that training on hazing-type activities and their relationship to sexual assault would be particularly beneficial to males in that it might lead to increased reporting and fewer inappropriate incidents. However, they stated that they have not seen this addressed in the training.”

Of the 122 men interviewed by the GAO, 87 said they believe other male service members may have reservations about reporting unwanted sexual contact. The most common reason was fear of being judged, especially if it led to questions about their masculinity or sexual orientation, the GAO said.

“For example, one male victim said that military culture encourages men to see themselves as dominant males and leaders, and that being sexually assaulted makes you feel like you are less than a man, helpless and weak, and stated that he had previously seen other sexual assault victims be treated badly after reporting an assault,” the report said.

GQ magazine took on the issue in a long-form article last year that drew widespread attention. In most cases, the male victims they interviewed said they didn’t report attacks because of an overriding sense of shame about what had occurred.

The GAO raised questions about whether altering sexual assault training in the military — and consequently, the conversation about sexual assault — would help.

Sexual assault prevention officials in the military acknowledge that they focus the majority of their programs on women because the overwhelming majority of those filing reports are female and they are at greater risk of being attacked, the GAO said.

But changes are coming. Last spring, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the services to put in place programs to encourage male sexual assault victims to seek care. The Marine Corps hosted an inter-service meeting to discuss the problem in September, and the services provided plans to address it to the Pentagon in January. The Defense Department is currently reviewing them, the GAO said.