Truman National Security Project

What Senior Leaders Get Wrong on Military Sexual Assault

Iraqi Freedom
By Kayla Williams | 9.16.13

I’ve been out of the military for years now, but remain closely involved with the military community as an advocate for women in the military, veterans, wounded warriors, and military families. Since sexual harassment and assault have been prominently featured in the media lately, these issues frequently come up in discussions. A series of conversations with military personnel and veterans from a variety of ranks and branches has led me to the following observations:

  • Sexual assault in the military is generally seen as a women’s problem. The vast majority of military personnel discuss the problem as one that is predominantly about young military men assaulting young military women, despite the far more complex picture actually shown by the SAPR reports. Few openly discussed the high percentage of male victims; if it comes up they seemed doubtful of the statistics.
  • Sexual assault is confused with sex. A common perception is that sexual assault is usually the result of two young people having too much to drink and things “going too far,” leading to “accusations” of rape. Many are unaware of the statistics showing most rapists are repeat offenders and do not understand the extent to which those serial sexual predators take advantage of rape culture to get away with their crimes.
  • Victim-blaming is narrowly avoided. Many believe that victims who have been drinking and/or put themselves into “dangerous situations” bear part of the blame. When I ask if someone who buys an expensive car should expect it to be broken into, a common response is, “If you park an expensive car in the ‘hood, you shouldn’t be surprised if the rims are stolen.” When I push back by asking, “Should young women who are expected to trust their male comrades with their lives in battle not trust these same men to not rape them if they go out for a couple beers when they return home?” many seem to genuinely not have considered this aspect.
  • Senior leaders are disconnected from young troops. Many older men I have spoken to either do not know or have only very recently learned the meaning of common terminology used by young troops, such as “tea-bagging” (in which one man places his testicles on another man’s face) and “money shot” (ejaculating on a woman’s face). Based on this, senior leaders could literally hear troops discussing sexual harassment right in front of them and not recognize it.
  • Hazing is not considered in this framework. In line with the focus on women and sex, many do not recognize the extent of male-on-male unwanted sexual contact that is likely the result of hazing. For example, both tea-bagging and pretending to hump one another were incredibly common between men when I was deployed. These activities meet the definition of unwanted sexual contact but are not addressed in prevention materials.
  • Underreporting is not taken seriously. Many believe the problem is being exaggerated and the numbers aren’t as high as survey results indicate, citing the as proof the lack of reported incidents in their own units. When I point out the example of tea-bagging and ask whether a man would be likely to report that type of behavior if he found it problematic, however, men admit that is unlikely.
  • False reporting is considered rampant. Conversely, many men believe false reporting happens extremely frequently. All can easily cite examples of what they are convinced are false reports they have personally seen filed. They also, however, conflate absence of evidence with evidence of absence (in other words, believe that if there is no proof, that means it didn’t happen).
  • Some believe this is an individual problem, not an organizational problem. In line with the desire to hold victims partly accountable, some believe that when instances of what they call “real” rape happen, it is due to criminal behavior on the part of specific individuals and that the organization is in no way responsible. More broadly, there seems to be a lack of awareness about the connection between sexual harassment and assault, a lack of recognition that an organization tolerant of the demeaning treatment of women and low-grade sexual harassment creates a climate that tacitly encourages sexual predators and deters victims from reporting.
  • This is a societal problem, not a military one. Pointing to high rates of sexual assault in civilian society and university settings, many believe the military is actually doing very well in comparison and that the problem is grossly exaggerated (though they pay lip service to the concept that “even one is too many”). Most are unaware of the military rape differential (rates of other violent crimes are remarkably lower in the military than in comparable civilian populations, so similar or only slightly lower rates of rape still indicate a problem).

These observations point to major flaws or gaps in the current strategic communications and/or training about sexual harassment and assault in the military that must be rectified to address the nature and extent of the sexual assault in the military. Most military personnel and veterans are proud of military success on other fronts – they know the military lead the way in tackling racial desegregation and are aware that previous campaigns to reduce or eliminate drunk driving have been successful. Playing on this pride as a way to encourage them to “show civilian institutions how to get it right” could be a powerful motivator in driving future change.

Kayla Williams is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on