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May 11, 2013

Military "Rape" Estimates: The Truth Behind the Numbers

Over the past few weeks, journalists and politicians have engaged in a virtual feeding frenzy over a recently released report on sexual assault in the military. Inexplicably, few journalists covering the story bothered to link to the report. Judging from their tone and choice of facts few of them bothered to read it, either. Central to the hype is a shocking number: the Pentagon reports that 26,000 sexual assaults (note: NOT rapes) are estimated to have occurred during FY2012.

This, we are told, is up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2010. What the press overwhelmingly chose not to tell us is that in 2006, that number was over 38,000.

The outrage centers around a supposed epidemic of "rape" involving "women". Absent from the coverage is any acknowledgment that the majority of military sexual assault victims are male or that the DoD estimates involve not rape, but "unwanted sexual contact" (which can include rape, attempted rape, and multiple forms of unwanted touching).

Here's a quick summary of what I found out while doing the work the press won't do reading through the report:

1. In the military, as in civilian life, women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than men.

2. But overall, more military men are assaulted than women. If we're tallying up the harm caused by sexual assault in the military, that number matters very much.

3. Estimated sexual assaults are up by 38% from FY2010.

4. But sexual assaults are down by 15% from 2006.

5. When age and marital status are controlled for, the risk of contact sexual violence for military and civilian women is the same. (page 16)

6. Military women are less likely than civilian women to experience stalking or intimate partner violence. (page 16)

7. With few exceptions, the past year and lifetime prevalence (occurrence) of IPV, sexual violence, and stalking in the civilian and military populations are quite similar, with no statistically significant differences.

8. Deployment history increases the risk of contact sexual violence.

That's a very different picture than the one painted by the media. To find out what's really going on, let's look at what's behind the media's cherry picked numbers.

How was the 26,000 estimate derived? I wasn't able to find a single media report that told me, but it's quite simple. DoD simply multiplied the percentage of male and female survey respondents reporting unwanted sexual contact by the active duty end strength numbers to get a "rough" (give or take a thousand) estimate of the "true" number of victims:


Notice anything peculiar about this chart? No matter how you calculate it, male victims outnumber female victims. Statistically speaking, military men are less likely to be sexually assaulted than military women but there are more of them. If we're at all concerned about the harm caused by sexual assault in the military, it makes no sense to ignore how many victims of each sex there are. Remedial and preventative programs that assume more female than male victims can't adequately address the real world consequences of sexual assault.

But there's another piece of missing context. According to CNN, the target audience for the survey was 108,000 active duty service members, of which 24% responded. That response rate seems very high, and it raises the question of sampling bias. Extrapolating from the survey sample to the overall population is only valid if the survey respondents don't differ from that population in any meaningful way. If, for instance, service members who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to respond than those who haven't, the extrapolation will overestimate the actual incidence of sexual assault. Likewise, if service members who have never been assaulted are less motivated to respond, the same will be true.

Of course the obverses of both these assumptions raise plausible questions as well. Another missing piece of information has to do with the demographic mix of respondents. Sexual assault risk varies by age, by rank, and by service. In comparing the results from different survey years (and extrapolating from these to the general population) differing demographics in the survey respondents should be taken into account.

Here's another piece of context. It has been fairly widely reported that actual reports of sexual assault for 2012 (3374) was up by about 6% from 2010. The DoD report cites the same increase on page 18:

In FY12, there were 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving Service members. This represents a 6 percent increase over the 3,192 reports of sexual assault received in FY11.

This is true mathematically (3374 is a 6% increase over 3192), but it also confuses the issue by ignoring changes in the size of the military over time. Did the number of reports rise in proportion to the size the armed forces in 2012 (things stayed the same), or because a higher number or proportion were sexually assaulted (things got worse)? Perhaps there were fewer sexual assaults, but more victims came forward due to better outreach (in which case things got better)? We don't know, but our context-less 6% increase sure sounds significant! To make things even more interesting, in 13% of the cited reports the victim wasn't even a service member:

The 3,374 reports received in FY12 involved 2,949 Service member victims.

And let's not forget that the majority of the survey's self reported sexual assaults were (incorrect media coverage to the contrary) not rapes. According to the DoD's report, about 31% of self reported "unwanted sexual contact" incidents were described by the reportees as actual rape. What this means is that if we want to extrapolate actual rape victims from this survey, the number we should be extrapolating from is 1.8%, not 6.1%. Is "rape" in the military really increasing over time? Slide 19 of the report briefing states that the differences are statistically insignificant:

There are no statistically significant differences [in the percent reporting actual rape] for women or men between 2012 and 2010 or 2006.

Put simply, there's no statistically significant evidence that self reported rape rates were any higher in 2012 than they were in 2006 OR 2010. Did you read that anywhere in the media coverage? I didn't. Instead, we read coverage like this, from Ruth Marcus (a pundit I've always respected for her evenhanded commentary):

Listen to [General] Welsh in his own words, quoted at length to provide the full context:

“It’s a big problem for our nation. It may be as big or bigger elsewhere. . . . Roughly 20 percent of the young women who come into the Department of Defense and the Air Force report that they were sexually assaulted in some way before they came into the military. So they come in from a society where this occurs. Some of it is the hook-up mentality of junior high, even, and high school students now. . . . The same demographic group moves into the military.

“We have got to change the culture once they arrive. The way they behave, the way they treat each other cannot be outside the bounds of what we consider inclusive and respectful.”

The hook-up mentality? Talk about not getting it. General, the hook-up culture is lamentable but consensual. Sexual assault is, by definition, not consensual.

So please explain, exactly, how one leads to the other. Indeed, please explain, exactly, how pinning the increase in sexual assaults on a willingness to engage in casual sex is not classic blame-the-slutty-victim thinking dressed up in 21st-century lingo. She hooked up, so she asked for it? She was already a victim when she enlisted?

“It’s beyond belief that those statements were just uttered,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “This is a violent act; this is not a date gone badly.”

Notably, Ms. Marcus linked, not to the full 2012 study but to the FY11 study fact sheet (an abbreviated executive summary that doesn't even mention the 26,000 estimate). We're guessing she didn't bother to read the full report either. But let me try to address her criticisms anyway.

As it turns out, having a high number of sexual partners or a history of casual/impersonal sex are risk factors for both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault. Another huge risk factor is a history of prior sexual assaults. As it turns out:

30% of women and 6% of men indicated experiencing unwanted sexual contact prior to their entry into the military

23% of women and 4% of men indicated experiencing unwanted sexual
contact since joining the military (including the past 12 months)

If we are to believe that the survey respondents are a representative sample, then it appears that both men and women are experiencing LESS unwanted contact in the military than they did in civilian life.

Does the military really have a rape problem? Certainly women (and even more men) are raped every year while on active service. But the report journalists are so avidly hyping doesn't support the conclusions they're drawing from their cherry picked statistics. In perhaps the most damning statistic of all, female survey respondents were asked how good a job the military does of sending a clear message that sexual assault will not be tolerated. The responses are impressive:


Despite centuries of laws against rape, rape continues to occur in both the civilian and military population. For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone expects to "end" rape. We can discourage it and punish it. We can teach young people that it is wrong and try to create a climate where victims will come forward. But sexual predators exist in all walks of life, and the only way to protect potential victims of sexual assault is to limit their freedom.

Noting that engaging in risky sexual behavior may well increase the risk of rape isn't "blaming the victim" - it's just common sense. Men and women who allow themselves to become intoxicated or have casual sex with multiple partners are putting themselves at risk. That doesn't mean it's their fault if they are sexually assaulted, but the connection between risk taking behavior and the likelihood of sexual assault absolutely must be taken into account in any serious study of rape or sexual assault.

The military draws from the surrounding society, and like the surrounding society it is influenced by changing views of what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior. The military is neither a lab experiment nor a test case for utopian ideas like the bizarre notion that rape can somehow be "eliminated". It can't.

And it's time the media pulled their heads out of the sand and faced reality. Military service is risky in a million ways that civilian life is not. One of these risks is that living in close quarters with large numbers of young people increases the risk of sexual assault. This has been shown to be true in colleges and universities and it's equally true in the armed forces.

Marcus closes by stating:

The Defense Department’s own study found that, though 26,000 people said they were assaulted last year, only 3,374 complaints were filed, in large part due to fears about the consequences of coming forward. And those fears were justified: In the survey just released, nearly two-thirds of those filing complaints reported suffering retaliation, either professionally or socially.

This simply isn't true. Out of a survey sample of 25000 people, about 1900 of them said they had experienced either unwanted touching, rape, or attempted rape. This number was extrapolated to arrive at an overall estimate of 26,000. This number may or may not (for reasons stated earlier) be an accurate estimate, but the conclusion that military sexual assault victims are any more afraid to come forward is refuted by the report Ms. Marcus and others declined to read:

Due to the underreporting of this crime in both military and civilian society, reports to authorities do not necessarily equate to the actual prevalence (occurrence) of sexual assault. In fact, the Department estimates that about 11 percent of the sexual assaults that occur each year are reported to a DoD authority. This is roughly the same pattern of underreporting seen in other segments of civilian society.

Somewhere, the truth is out there. But you have to read the report you're citing if you're serious about finding it.

Posted by Cassandra at May 11, 2013 09:37 AM

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Excellent column! Observations:

1. You've done a great job highlighting the poor statistical methodology . . . which in my Stats courses (applied science BS & MBA) woulda flunked me . . .

2. As a Vet, I have to disagree on the issue of treating male on male assault or harrassment as equivalent, or even a similar issue as male on female assault. Men are (mostly) bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women. A man is better able to defend himself, both physically and and by temperment.
- I'm quite comfortable with the policy of taking extra care to protect women in the military
- I'm somewhere between dissapointed and outraged w/ 'advocates' relentlessly beating up our military on issues for which we either reflect society as a whole, or actually have a significantly better record. Not *fair* for wannabe social engineers to demand that our military be effective killers on order ('steely eyed killers of the deep' for us Submariners), and also be Monks off duty
>>> pardon me, but f*ck that noise.

Best Regards,

PS: tangentially related, it's ridiculus for us to send our Marines to a ratsh*t desert (or dry mountain wasteland), require them to do the heavy lifting in combat, then deny them beer on weekends to avoid offending the local creeps.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at May 12, 2013 12:48 AM

One wonders if setting an impossible standard like "ending rape" is meant as an ideal to strive towards (and, as humans, inevitably fall short of), or rather as a blank check for continued meddling and social experimentation. Sort of like the War on Poverty.

Posted by: Matt at May 12, 2013 04:00 AM

Great analysis Cass, and thank you for (yet again) showing up our lazy, biased press corps for what they really are (Wh***es).

I have to agree with CAPT Mike (even though he is a tube sailor) about males taking special care to protect women--with the the caveat that we need to be mindful that seeking sexual favors as a road to power/prestige/advancement goes both ways.

Thanks again and Cheers!

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at May 12, 2013 08:44 AM

Another excellent post. The problem with it is that reading it caused me to start yelling "Nothing, you idiot. Can't you read or is it math you have trouble with?" at the television when David Gregory promo-ed it by asking - in those hushed, disaster-ahead tones - what it told us about our military. Very bad for my Sunday morning tranquility.

Posted by: Elise at May 12, 2013 12:05 PM

Howdy CAPT Mongo,
Thank you for your service to our country, and your kind hat tip.
OK, I'm a bubblehead . . . you?

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at May 12, 2013 08:29 PM

Lifer SWO. Started out in Tin Cans and ended up in in CLF. I did do my first class cruise in ODAX (SS-484)--absolutely great time!

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at May 13, 2013 04:30 PM