Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent Donald Trump answered questions on national security and foreign policy Sept. 7 during a "commander-in-chief forum" on NBC News. (Video: NBC News/Photos: Melina Mara/Post, Mike Segar/Reuters)

Moderator Matt Lauer: “In 2013, on this subject, you tweeted this, quote, ‘26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military, only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?'”

Donald Trump: “Well, it is — it is — it is a correct tweet. There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct. And we need to have a…”

Lauer: “So this should have been expected? And does that mean the only way to fix it is to take women out of the military?”

Trump: “Well, it’s happening, right? And, by the way, since then, it’s gotten worse.”

— exchange during NBC’s forum on national security, Sept. 7, 2016

What a totally misguided exchange. We addressed this claim briefly in our round-up of 18 claims by Trump and Hillary Clinton at the forum, but it called for a deeper dive.

Both men are at fault here. At question is Trump’s argument in a 2013 tweet, claiming that the root cause of sexual assault in the military is having men and women serve together.

Trump answered that “it is a correct tweet” (it’s not), and Lauer did a disservice by letting this claim go unchallenged. Further, Lauer framed his two follow-up questions in the same misleading manner: Should it have been expected, because women and men serve together — and is the solution to take women out of the military altogether?

Let’s explore what is wrong with this conversation.

The Facts

Trump cited figures from a 2012 Pentagon report on sexual assault in the military, which found about 26,000 active-duty members experienced unwanted sexual contact. According to the Pentagon, 53 percent of those cases involved sexual assaults of men, mostly by men.

A 2015 Pentagon-commissioned study by Rand Corp. found a 27 percent drop from that report: 18,900 active-component service members experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact in 2014, including 10,400 men and 8,500 women. The 18,900 figure represented 1.4 percent of the 1.3 million total active-component service members.

“Unwanted sexual contact” includes a variety of acts and does not necessarily indicate criminal behavior. So Rand introduced a new measure for “sexual assaults” that aligns with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which defines criminal offenses under military law. This definition requires the intent to be to “abuse, humiliate, harass, or degrade any person” or “arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”

Here are major findings on sexual assault in the military, using the new measurement:

  • About 20,300 out of the total 1.3 million service members were victims of sexual assault in 2014. About 10,600 (52 percent) were men, and 9,600 were women. (One reason for this is that men outnumber women in the military.)
  • Among male victims of sexual assault, 70 percent reported the offender as a man or a mix of men and women when there were multiple attackers.
  • Men (75 percent of assaulted men) were more likely than women (55 percent of assaulted women) to have been assaulted repeatedly in the span of a year. Men and junior enlisted personnel were at higher risk for repeated assaults. Men were more likely than women to report multiple offenders.
  • Many sexual assaults, especially ones targeting men, occurred repeatedly and in the context of hazing or other forms of abuse or humiliation. Men were about twice as likely as women to describe the assault as abusive, rather than sexual.
  • One-third of men reporting assault were penetrated, and one-half of women were penetrated.
  • Of total active-component members, 5 percent of women and 1 percent of men experienced at least one sexual assault.

These findings show that military sexual assault is not a male-and-female problem, as Trump says, or that it should be expected as long as women serve in the military, as Lauer suggests.

Their statements indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual assault. Rape and sexual assaults are crimes of violence, power and control — not a matter of gratifying sexual impulses or desires. Sex is used to inflict pain or humiliation on the victim. This is reflected in the study’s findings of repeated attacks by known (sometimes multiple) offenders, described by the victims as acts of abuse or humiliation.

“There’s no reason to think that getting rid of women in the military would change those sexual assaults” of men, said Andrew Morral, senior behavioral scientist at Rand, who co-led the research. “A lot of these sexual assaults in the military occur in the context of hazing. It’s not clearly intended for anyone’s sexual gratification.”

This is not to say that women are not victims or to minimize the issue of male-female sexual assault. Seventy-nine percent of such assaults were carried out by only a man or men and 15 percent by only a woman or women. Women almost always were attacked by men or a mix of men and women. But again, removing women from the equation doesn’t solve the issue of sexual assault in the military.

This is a complex problem. The Rand report found that reservists experienced sexual assaults at significantly lower rates than their active-duty peers. Does that mean active duty is the main factor? It’s unclear, Morral said. Not all of the sexual assaults among active-duty members were clearly connected to military service. Another interesting finding is that the risk of sexual assault varied depending on the branch of service; men and women in the Air Force had substantially lower rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment than service members in the other three branches.

Related: Trump answered a veteran’s question relating to sexual assaults of women in the military by saying: “The best thing we can do is set up a court system in the military. Right now, the court system practically doesn’t exist. It takes too long.” There already is a military court system, though Trump’s claim mirrors some of the criticism against the military judicial system — that prosecution of sexual assault cases is difficult and takes a long time.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump and Lauer grossly mischaracterized a complex problem and portrayed a fundamental lack of understanding about the issue. Men constituted 52 percent of sexual assault victims in the military, one-third of them were penetrated, and most of them were male-on-male assaults. Sexual assault and rape are acts of violence and power, not sexual desire or gratification.

Trump’s tweet used the statistics available at the time, but the characterization of it being entirely a male-female problem is incorrect. That does exist, and perhaps “many people” might agree with Trump, but male-female sexual assaults are only one part of this problem. Lauer didn’t get it right, either; he clearly had the tweet ready, and he should’ve had facts at hand to challenge the central argument. Both men earn Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

 


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