More On Sexual Assault In The Military

Today I have a piece about the complicated and sometimes questionable statistics that are cited by those who say that sexual assault, and in particular male-on-male sexual assault, is epidemic in the military.

The upshot is that, at the very least, the statistical situation is much more complicated than some would like to admit—and that the one thing that the most reliable figures available do show clearly is that sexual assault in the military is predominantly a crime of male perpetrators and female victims.

The core of the problem surrounding the public conversation about this issue is widespread reliance on a dubious survey conducted by the Department of Defense, the 2012 "Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members."

As I wrote this morning:

The survey is conducted every two years, and a new one will be released in April of next year. So, the military surveyed its members and 26,000 service-members, among them 14,000 males, said they had been victims of sexual assault?

Well, no…those figures are estimates. How were they arrived at? The survey in question was administered anonymously and online. Responses were received from 22,792 service members. So about 1.6 percent of the active-duty force got back to the surveyors, answering their questions about sexual assault?

Again, not exactly…the question the survey posed did not ask about "sexual assault." Instead, the survey asked about "unwanted sexual contact[, a term that] covers roughly the same territory as the broad legal definitions of the various degrees of sexual assault. But would those answering the online survey respond differently to a question about "unwanted sexual contact" than they would to a question about "sexual assault"? Who knows. Perhaps the survey currently underway will correct this obvious methodological problem.

During the course of the day, I have been made aware of an article published earlier this year by the formidable Rowan Scarborough that makes a related point: the incredibly alarming numbers in the Gender Relations Survey don’t match up with a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of young women about the issue of sexual assault. The survey uses the same language as the Pentagon’s effort, but has significantly better methodology. As Scarborough writes:

The Pentagon’s survey results for the percentage of military women who are sexually assaulted in a year are much higher than the Justice Department’s findings for young women in the U.S.

In its 2012 survey, the Pentagon said 6 percent of military women — or 12,000 — were victims of unwanted sexual contact, which is abusive contact that includes rape. The release of that figure triggered an uproar on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers said the military suffers a sexual misconduct epidemic.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey released last year found almost one-fourth of a percent of women ages 18 to 34 had suffered such abuse in 2010. Preliminary numbers for 2012 show a rate of just over four-tenths of a percent. …

The bureau’s statistics are based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, which is considered the gold standard for capturing violent crime rates because of its methodology.

Unlike the Pentagon’s emailed survey to a website link, the National Crime Victimization Survey involves face-to-face interviews with a scientific sample size (146,570) and follow-up telephone sessions, all conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Scarborough’s reporting of the issue is interesting in its details, and it is worth reading the whole thing. He also cites a Wall Street Journal op-ed from 2013 by Marine Captain Lindsay Rodman, a military lawyer who absolutely trashes the DOD’s survey, in what cannot have been a good move for her career:

The report's estimate that last year 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact prompted many to conclude, incorrectly, that this reliably estimated the number of victims of sexual assault.

The 2012 estimate was also significantly higher than the last estimate, causing some to proclaim a growing "epidemic" of sexual assault in the military. The truth is that the 26,000 figure is such bad math—derived from an unscientific sample set and extrapolated military-wide—that no conclusions can be drawn from it. …

It is disheartening to me, as a female officer in the Marine Corps and a judge advocate devoted to the professional practice of law in the military, to see Defense Department leaders and members of Congress deal with this emotionally charged issue without the benefit of solid, verifiable data…The WGRA survey was fielded throughout all branches of the military in September and November 2012. As the report indicates, "Completed surveys were received from 22,792 eligible respondents," while "the total sample consisted of 108,478 individuals." In other words, one in five of the active-duty military personnel to whom the survey was sent responded.

I am one of those who responded to the survey after receiving an email with an online link. None of the males in my office received the email, though nearly every other female did. We have no way of knowing the exact number of male or female respondents to the 2012 WGRA survey because that information wasn't released. …

The estimated 26,000 service members who fell victim to unwanted sexual contact in 2012 is higher than the 19,000 estimate based on the 2010 WRGA survey (the survey wasn't conducted in 2011). Does this mean that there was a 34% jump in just two years? The data are too unreliable to tell. Before 2010, the Defense Department did not extrapolate military-wide in this manner, and for good reason. If you apply the same extrapolations to the 2006 WGRA survey results, you arrive at a far higher number—34,000. …

Nevertheless, to achieve the 26,000 military-wide estimate in 2012 (and 19,000 in 2010) over half of the victims must have been male. Of course, male victims do exist, but empirically males do not constitute anywhere near the majority of victims of unwanted sexual contact—no less sexual assault.

Captain Rodman’s op-ed is also worth a detailed read.

The statistical situation surrounding this issue is complicated, and it is not an act of denialism or insensitivity to honestly confront the clashing sets of numbers and ask which, empirically, paints a more plausible picture—even if it is inconvenient to do so for those whose pre-determined conclusions are supported by only the least reliable figures.

Sexual assault in the military is a serious issue, and deserves careful study. The DOD is conducting a new Gender Relations Survey right this very moment. Have they fixed their methodological problems?