The number of sexual assaults reported in the US military jumped by 10% last year, according to Defense Department data published Monday.
A total of 6,769 sexual assaults were reported in the US military in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, compared to 6,172 in 2016, according to the new report.
Defense officials argued that the increase was a sign that more service members are willing to trust the system to handle their cases without fear of retribution — not that sexual assaults themselves had increased. The military believes the number of assaults has actually been falling, based on the results of an anonymous survey it conducts every two years.
"Taken together, the increase in reporting and the decrease in occurrence of sexual assault provide substantial evidence that the department is making progress in its efforts to eliminate this crime from the military," Under Secretary of Defense Robert Wilkie wrote in a letter to lawmakers attached to the report.
The overall increase was partly driven by an almost 15% increase in sexual assault reports in the US Marine Corps. This comes after last year’s “Marines United” scandal, which revealed troops sharing and crowdsourcing nude photos of female service members online.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, told Congress last week that the service was in a “better place” after the scandal forced it to address its culture of harassment. Just a few days earlier, a Marine Corps general had been suspended after he told an all-hands meeting at Quantico that allegations of sexual harassment against a Marine officer were "fake news.”
Sexual assault reports also increased by 9% in the Air Force and Navy, and by 8% in the Army.
Defense officials acknowledged that, as in the civilian world, sexual assault — which the military defines as intentional sexual contact characterized by the use of force, threats, intimidation, or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent — is still vastly underreported in the military. As it tries to raise awareness, the military also needs to address “training fatigue, gaps in knowledge and cynicism,” the report found.
The number of female service members who reported sexual assault across the military jumped by 13% last year, according to the Pentagon data. A slew of stories published in the wake of the #MeToo movement showed that female service members found the military justice system broken when it came to reporting sexual assault and felt stuck in a culture that suppresses the reporting of these crimes.
The last time the Pentagon published the results of its anonymous survey, in 2016, the number of service members who said they'd been assaulted had dropped to 15,000 from 19,000 in 2014 and 26,000 in 2012.
The Pentagon estimates that 1 in 3 service members who were assaulted in 2016 reported it, compared to 1 in 14 in 2006, according to the report.
The Pentagon had “sufficient evidence to take disciplinary action in 62% of the cases of accused service members within its legal authority” in 2017, according to the report. The remaining 38% did not reach that point because of insufficient evidence or because the victim did not want to participate in disciplinary proceedings.
Roughly 10% of the cases occurred before the service member joined the military, but since they reported it while in uniform the incidents were included in the total number.