The estimated number of men and women experiencing unwanted sexual contact at the U.S. military’s service academies jumped 47 percent since the figures were last gathered two years ago, raising concerns about the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce sexual violence among the future leaders of the U.S. armed forces.
According to the survey, which the Defense Department released Thursday, an estimated 747 cadets and midshipmen at the military’s three service academies experienced unwanted sexual contact during the 2017-2018 academic year, up from 507 cadets and midshipmen two years ago.
“This is really disheartening for our us because the strategies that we put in place aren’t having the effect that we intended,” said Nate Galbreath, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevent and response office. “It tells us that we need to redouble our efforts in this area.”
The transgressions primarily affected women. According to the report, 15.8 percent of all female students studying at the academies experienced unwanted sexual contact in the academic year, compared with 12.2 percent two years ago. Of the male students, 2.4 percent experienced unwanted sexual contact in the past academic year, versus 1.7 percent two years ago.
The trend lines are worrying for a Defense Department that has been facing pressure from Congress and the public to reduce instances of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks of the U.S. military. Top officials at the Pentagon pledged to take a more active role in combating such behavior and step up efforts to create a safe and healthy environment at the academies.
“Our commitment is absolute,” Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, executive director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, said in a statement. “While we are disheartened that the strategies we have employed have not achieved the results we had intended, we are not deterred.”
The survey encompassed the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the results varied by academy.
They prompted particular concern for the Army, which saw rates of unwanted sexual contact increase for both men and women at West Point. An estimated 1 in 6 women studying at West Point experienced unwanted sexual contact during the most recent academic year.
Mark T. Esper, secretary of the Army, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, described the report’s findings as “troubling and disappointing” in a joint statement.
“There is no room in the U.S. Army for sexual harassment or sexual assault,” they said. “This is a readiness issue that affects our ability to prepare to fight and win our nation’s wars as much as it is an issue of values. As such, we have directed the West Point leadership to report back with an updated action plan in the coming weeks.”
Esper and Milley also placed responsibility on bystanders in the military to stop wrongdoing when they see it. “Leaders, soldiers and cadets who fail to intervene and stop sexual assault or sexual harassment violate the nation’s trust and the trust of their peers,” they said.
Rates of unwanted sexual contact also increased for women at the Air Force Academy. Rates stayed roughly the same for men and women at Annapolis and men at the Air Force Academy, according to an analysis of the figures submitted to Congress by the Pentagon.
The analysis uses the term “unwanted sexual contact” to encompass a range of sex-related offenses they said were prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“These offenses include completed or attempted oral, anal, or vaginal penetration by a body part or an object and the unwanted touching of genitalia, buttocks, breasts, or inner thighs when the victim did not or could not consent,” the report said.
Alcohol was often involved in the instances of unwanted sexual contact. The report’s authors also found that the offenders were most often fellow cadets and midshipmen, noting that the violations occurred both on and off campus but were more likely to take place off grounds.
The Pentagon also measures instances of sexual harassment at the service academies. The rate of sexual harassment increased at the Naval Academy but remained roughly the same statistically at West Point and the Air Force Academy, the report found.
The Defense Department noted that the survey was conducted before the military service academies implemented mandated plans in the summer of 2018 to address sexual harassment and sexual assault. As a result, the Pentagon cautioned that the results didn’t “reflect the large investment of attention, time and resources dedicated to these problems.”
Galbreath, speaking in an interview at the Pentagon, said that researchers have determined that U.S. service members in the military are far more likely to report sexual assault or misconduct than cadets and midshipmen at the academies, contributing to the problem.
“The first couple of years that you’re a cadet or you’re a mid, you’re really concerned about what the leaders and everybody are thinking of you,” Galbreath said. “They don’t want that lasting stigma associated with that. When you’re an older cadet or mid, you want to get out and into the force and graduate. You don’t want to report something that might hold you up.”
In surveys, students reported at high rates that they believe leaders at the academies already are closely focused on the problem, Galbreath said. But cadets and midshipmen do not rate leaders in the student body nearly as well.
“Really we need those cadet and midshipmen leaders to step up and force those climates of dignity and respect,” he said. “What our data tells us is that a lot of this stuff is happening after-hours and on weekends, when it’s out of the direct supervision of the officers to enforce anything.”