Regardless, females account for a majority of the victims. The reasons for the persistence of this problem lie in the male domination culture that the military propagates through its norms and ideals. Such ideas include those that support military violence and domination. In the face of the pervasiveness of sexual assaults in the military setting, countless of cases remain unreported due to the fear of victimization as well as the organizational structure that inhibits effective reporting. Consequently, there is a need for the military to reevaluate its existing programs to promote gender equality and prevention of such incidences rather than dealing with the consequences.

Keywords: Sexual assault, harassment, servicemen, servicewomen


Sexual assault in the military

Sexual assault at the workplace has been in the limelight for an extended time. Such type of conduct leads to discrimination against an individual by their gender at all ranks of employment and affects males and females alike. The problem of sexual harassment is widespread in many workplace settings, and the military is not an exception. Though the issue of sexual assault has remained dominant in the army, it did not receive enough attention. In the past decade, however, there has been an increased concern over the rise in the number of sexual assaults against veterans. Consequently, the relevant department has taken steps to address the issue that continues to persist. Sexual harassment in the military should be given attention since the problem continues to persist and is widely underreported.

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Even though sexual harassment in the military has been a persistent issue, it received little attention in the past years. However, the release of the documentary, The Invisible War, resulted in discussion of that problem (William, 2017). Currently, the media has brought the matter to the limelight by strategically placing it within the political agendas. Although criminal justice system does not differentiate sexual harassment and assault, the Department of Defense (DoD) does (Stander & Thomsen, 2016). It defines sexual assault as the intentional use of force, abuse of authority, threat, as well as intimidation to drive one’s sexual agenda without a victim's consent. According to this system, sexual harassment is not confined to rape but also includes unwanted sexual contact. On the other hand, as DoD states, sexual harassment refers to sexual requests or other pervasive conduct capable of creating hostile working environments. For a veteran to prove the allegation of sexual harassment, they must offer evidence that the action happened and it was without consent. Like in other workplace sexual harassment cases, proving the latter can be difficult. Consequently, the frequency of sexual assaults in the military is widely underreported.

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Frequency of occurrence

Increased attention to the sexual harassment problem in the military has brought positive impacts. From 2009, the number of reported incidences has significantly improved. In the period between 2009 and 2015, there was nearly a 100% increase in the reported cases starting from 2,670 in 2009 to 6,083 in 2015 (William, 2017). In 2014 alone, a projected 20,000 servicemen and women dealt with unwanted sexual associations at their workplaces (Castro, Kintzle, Schuyler, Lucas, & Warner, 2015). Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the military occurs even in a combat environment, and it is traumatizing to the victims. In 2016 alone, the number of reported assaults was 6,172, which is slightly higher than in the official statistics published in 2015 (William, 2017). The number conveyed in 2016 is also significantly higher than that of reported incidences of previous years (William, 2017). A study conducted by RAND in 2013 indicated that at least 1.5 of all the active service members in the United States of America experienced sexual harassment in their lives (Morral, Gore, & Schell, 2015). From this report, those victims of sexual harassment are likely to face such assaults in future. The interviewed respondents who answered positively reported encountering two or more incidences in their practice. Women with a previous history of sexual harassment are 5.31 times more likely to suffer victimization within a year compared to those without such experience (William, 2017). In the USA, a report released by the DoD in 2017 also highlights the widespread problem. It describes an increase in the number of cases from 15% in 2005 to 32% in 2016 (DoD, 2017). Sexual harassment in the military, therefore, is a prevalent issue that requires attention.

Of all the reported incidences, the number of female victims is notably higher than that of male ones, namely they represent 9.5 to 43% of the victims, while men show 1 to 12% of the targets (Castro, et al., 2015). In 2012, 90% of all published rates had men as their perpetrators (Lucero, 2015). Another study released by RAND indicates the gender disparities in reported sexual harassment incidences between male and female veterans. While the research suggested a one of 100 frequency in men, the investigation unmasked a worrying one of 20 frequency of occurrence among female veterans (Morral, et al., 2015). From this study, the researchers estimated that a total of 9,600 women and 10,600 men encountered sexual harassment at some point in their work in 2013 alone (Morral, et al., 2015). The difference in this figures comes from the fact that the military is a male-dominated sector. The identified figure represents a third of the servicemen, while the female number accounts for almost a half of all the servicewomen in the US Army. In the marine, servicewomen are 1.43 more likely to face sexual harassment than their male counterparts (Morral, et al., 2015). Therefore, women are more susceptible to the attacks than men.

Causes of sexual assault in the military

The high pervasiveness of sexual violence in the military raises inquiries on the roots of these extensive occurrences.

Gender stereotypes

Gender stereotyping is probably the leading cause of sexual harassment incidences in the military. The reason for this is that the army is one of the male-dominated sectors that place importance on male ideals. Moreover, this sector is characterized by strict organization, leadership, loyalty, as well as ranks. Its nature encourages domination, aggression, and risk-taking (Stander & Thomsen, 2016). Consequently, the perpetrators of these incidences may see it as their way of exerting power over their victims. Additionally, the fact that women are more likely to encounter sexual assaults comes from various reasons. The traditions that advocate male-only bonding groups is one of these factors that promote competition, domination, and control. Such servicemen may feel threatened by the presence of competent women. In their desire to prove their masculinity, they often end up as the perpetrators of the sexual harassment incidences against their female colleagues. Moreover, the fact that the military is a male-dominated sector implies that there are notable power differences between men and women. For example, males assume high ranks , which promotes sexual misconducts and inhibits reporting of the incidences. Additionally, homophobia is another factor supporting the prevalence of sexual harassment, particularly in men, as they fear getting identified as gays. Thus, all these facts promote sexual harassment in the military.

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Historical and cultural beliefs

The history of wars also fuels the sexual harassment incidences in the military. Traditionally, many cultures took women as trophies. The females were considered a resource that men were entitled to during a combat. When deployed together with men, the women are at high risks of being victims of sexual harassment incidences. Some of the female victims reported that the male perpetrators have a perception that the servicewomen have a responsibility to participate in sexual activities.

Cultural beliefs also play a notable role in influencing the sexual harassment incidences in the armed forces. Some cultures in the past viewed the ability to rape and kill as an indication of power and acceptance of authority. In addition, the culture of rape acceptance among the victims also promotes the perpetration of the incidences. The structure of the army in itself acts as a barrier to reporting. Armed with this knowledge, the perpetrations of such conduct are likely to exercise the assaults more than ones since they know that the victims do not report them. The hindrances from the very system that should protect the affected people ultimately create a rape culture within the military. As it was evidenced in one of the studies, many of the sexual harassment victims interviewed did not report such incidences as they just wanted to move on with their life.

Substance use

Substance use has been linked to many incidences of sexual harassment incidences not only in the military but also among civilians. In the military settings, alcohol is responsible for many of such cases. A report by the DoD showed that 58% of the sexual violence cases in the military academies and 57% of the same cases in naval academies were triggered by the alcohol (Castro, et al., 2015). Moreover, both the victims and perpetrators had consumed the substance. The consumption of alcohol increases sexual desires, aggressiveness, as well as loss of control. Furthermore, it may lead to the misinterpretation of a victim's response. Such factors combined with attitudes and perceptions that promote male dominance link alcohol use to increased sexual harassment incidences in the military.

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Reporting the incidences

Despite the fact that sexual harassment in the military is a prevalent problem that affects both men and women, many of the cases go unreported. In 2010, among 19,000 sexual contact incidences, only 3,158 got reported, and further, only 575 of the said occurrences got prosecuted (Lucero, 2015). Additionally, only 96% of these cases reached the courts. The same trend continues in 2012 as only 3,374 incidences of the projected 26,000 ones were reported, and just 302 went to the courts (Lucero, 2015). The difficulty of communicating sexual harassment incidences is one of the major causes of the prevalence of the issue. One of the problems contributing to this underreporting is the requirements enforced to qualify an occurrence as either sexual harassment or sexual assault. Some of these elements are difficult to prove, which leaves the attackers free, while a victim can only suffer in silence. Additionally, the mechanisms enforced by the military to report such incidences also constrain the affected persons. The two channels are restricted as well as unrestricted reporting. The former allows a victim to disclose the prevalence to a confidential person (Lucero, 2015). In this case, however, there is no further investigation into the matter, and victims get medical care and other services. Unrestricted reporting, on the other hand, involves investigation. Like in a restricted case, a victim also receives medical attention and other services. However, those in higher ranks get informed about a problem, and an investigation becomes opened. In spite of the much attention given to the issue, there are questions as to why so many incidences remain unreported.


Fear is one of the leading causes of underreporting of the sexual harassment incidences in the military. Many of the victims fear to report for various reasons. However, the choice to keep quiet about the occurrences not only affects the affected person but also increases the likelihood of repeating the same occurrence in the future. Some of the factors that create fear include the victimization, especially in incidences where the perpetrator is of a higher rank (Lucero, 2015). Apart from that, in occurrences that involve same-sex harassment, the victims may choose to keep quiet to protect their sexual orientation. Additionally, sexual harassment victims have reported a lack of support from the military when they report the incidences. The institution fails to offer protection to victims of brutal exploitation. Moreover, many of the reported occurrences end up not prosecuted as a result of insufficient evidence since the components of the charges are at times hard to prove. The dismissal is despite the fact that victims often go through rigorous questions: a process that is at times traumatizing. Additionally, many of the victims choose to remain silent since they fear that such occurrences may affect their professional development. The reporting makes those in higher ranks question the judgment of the victims, thus inhibiting their ability to progress at the workplace. Reporting the incidences interferes with a victim’s capacity to continue operating in the military, hence making them quit.

The organizational structure and culture

The hierarchy of commands in the military as well as the long-standing culture make the climate and possible leadership reasons result in the prevalence of sexual harassment and ineffective reporting. The male domination in the military encourages the rape culture. The aggression and dominance distort the reasons why one experiences the sexual harassment, particularly the servicewomen. In 2010, one out of every seven victims were assaulted by someone higher in the chain of command in their unit (Facts on United States military sexual violence, 2018). The prevalence of the attitude combined with an inadequate response when incidences get reported prevent the victims from reporting the rates. The type of leadership in an organization promotes the ease of communicating sexual assault incidences. The administration in the military, on the other hand, seems to inhibit this reporting probably in an attempt to conceal the vice in the military. The fact is evident as the reporting of the occurrences is associated with reduced career development. The reason for this is that the veterans do not trust the system as most of the cases end up mishandled. Many of the victims believe that reporting of the sexual harassment incidences may negatively affect their careers. Moreover, there is a high retaliation rate (62%) for the servicemen and women that choose to report the occurrences (Facts on United States military sexual violence, 2018). The military’s organizational structure and culture, therefore, promote domination, aggression, and retaliation, which discourages victims from reporting the incidences.

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Future and recommendations

Regardless of the attention given to sexual harassment incidences in the military, sexual harassment and assault there continue to prevail. Such high rates threaten the very cohesion and loyalty, thus compromising the values that army forces are aimed to protect. The key to addressing the problem lies with changing the military culture that promotes male dominance and aggression. Though the military is a disciplined force, there is a need to instill moral principles in the servicemen and women that advocate respecting human rights for both males and females. Moreover, although it is a male-dominated sector, those in leadership should enforce policies that promote gender equality at the workplace.

Although the military has come up with programs to address this issue, it is evident that they are not useful as the problem continues to persist. Consequently, there is a need to redesign these approaches to focus on the identification and elimination of the risk factors that predispose an individual to the attacks. Such programs should not only focus on the victims but also aim at bringing an attitude of change for the perpetrators of the incidences. Moreover, to be more efficient, the methods should concentrate on preventing the occurrences of the assaults but not offering the support to the victims of sexual harassment. Advocating the servicemen and women to complete as much training as possible is not working (Castro, et al., 2015). Such training overwhelms the trainees, thus reducing their effectiveness. Notably, the prevalence of the problem is partly fueled by the lack of proper reporting mechanisms. The military must, therefore, enforce systems that promote reporting as well as offer protection to the victims. Accordingly, the military should restructure their legal and justice system from one that favors the perpetrators to one that offers equal opportunities for justice to all.


Sexual assault and harassment incidents are pervasive in the military. Many studies have been conducted to establish the extent of the problem, particularly after the media placed the issue in the limelight. From these studies, it is evident that sexual harassment is a deep-rooted problem in the military and affects men and women alike. However, females constitute the majority of the cases. The reason for this is that the military is a male-dominated sector that propagates masculine ideas, thus creating a domination attitude in the servicemen over the servicewomen. Despite the continued efforts to encourage the reporting of these incidences, many of the victims remain silent about their plight. The reason of this is the organizational structure that favors the perpetrators over the victims and also the fear of victimization and retaliation. In light of this, there is, therefore, a need for the military to re-evaluate its programs and enforce measures that promote gender equality to deal with the sexual harassment problem that continues to persist despite the rules imposed.

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