Findings from a Pentagon survey on sexual assault in the military, which triggered outrage about what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls a “crisis,” may be based on scanty response rates, questionable data and broad definitions of what constitutes abuse.
The confidential poll of active-duty troops has been conducted three times -- in 2006, 2010 and 2012 -- with varying results that show the challenge of even measuring the extent of sexual assault in the ranks, much less stopping it.
Extrapolating survey results to the entire force, the latest Defense Department report last week suggested there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, a 35 percent increase over two years. The previous survey in 2010 had shown a 44 percent plunge since 2006.
In contrast to those estimates, the annual number of military sexual assault victims in actual reports to authorities rose 13 percent from 2010 to 2012, and 14 percent from 2006 to 2010.
While nobody has questioned the importance of preventing sexual assaults, survey shortcomings may make it hard to gauge the Pentagon’s progress.
“This is an extremely important topic, and it deserves to be measured very carefully,” said Paul Lavrakas, a pollster and president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, who said he’s troubled that three years of survey data produced such different estimates.
“When you see them jump around like that, the first thing that comes to mind is there’s something wrong with the numbers,” said Lavrakas, who said he hasn’t reviewed the Pentagon’s survey methodology.
The survey’s estimate of a 35 percent increase in sexual assaults since 2010, along with allegations that two soldiers charged with combating sexual abuse were themselves abusing women, have sparked demands for action. President Barack Obama called Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs to the White House yesterday for a meeting, and a bipartisan group of Senate and House members proposed legislation that would relieve military commanders of the power to prosecute sexual abuse cases.
The existence of sexual abuse in the military is undisputed and has persisted for generations. As women make up a growing percentage of the force and are being considered for combat assignments, the Pentagon may lack solid information on whether the problem is increasing or diminishing, said David Segal, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.
“The data are squishy,” Segal said. “I would be loath to infer trends from two or three data points.”
Army Major General Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, defended the survey’s accuracy.
“I got a team of Ph.D.s and statisticians that look at this every year,” Patton said at a Pentagon news conference last week. “It’s the same questions, the methodology is consistent from 2006 to 2010 to 2012.”
While public and political attention has focused on the persistent problem of men in uniform abusing women, the survey found that more victims of sexual assault and harassment in the military are male than female, largely because men make up about 85 percent of the total force.
About 1.2 percent of men reported unwanted sexual contact last year, a percentage that amounts to 14,000 victims when extrapolated across all men on active duty.
The percentage of female troops victimized is larger -- at 6.1 percent -- which amounts to 12,000 victims across the force.
In the survey, respondents were asked whether they experienced any involuntary sexual contact, from being “sexually touched” to rape.
“That’s a function of the gender distribution of the force,” Segal said. “It doesn’t mean it’s a gay thing at all. If you’re in a deployed situation with no women involved, you do what’s available. The same thing happens in prisons.”
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ support group, said, “The epidemic of rape and sexual assault is not about gender. It is about power and a fundamentally broken military justice system.”
Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, another victims’ advocacy group, said the Pentagon should conduct its survey yearly to better gauge trends.
Still, he said, the number of incidents probably has increased in recent years as awareness of the problem grows.
“I don’t think the numbers are inflated,” Jacob said. “They reflect that the situation isn’t getting better.”
The military uses a confidential survey, which Patton said will now be conducted every two years, because the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Victims have said they’re afraid to come forward, partly because they fear that doing so would risk their careers in the service.
“We’ve got to create an environment in which victims feel that they’re comfortable coming forward,” Obama said after meeting yesterday with the Pentagon leadership. “They’ve got to know that they should have no fear of retaliation, no fear of stigma, no damage to their careers and certainly no protection for criminals.”
Obama said he wants the Pentagon to “make sure that we’ve got effective metrics and feedback loops, so we are continually evaluating how well we’re doing.” Reported sexual assault may initially increase if soldiers become more confident that justice will be done, he said.
“On the other hand, I then want those trend lines to start going down because that indicates that we’re also starting to fix the problem, and we’ve highlighted it, and people who are engaged in despicable behavior, they get fully punished for it.”
In 2012, there were 2,949 reported assaults in which a military service member was the victim, an 8.3 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Pentagon’s annual study.
When reported cases are compared with the results of the confidential survey, “it shows that sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime,” Patton said.
Still, the accuracy of the survey is difficult to assess.
The total sample used in the survey, conducted Sept. 17 to Nov. 7 last year, was 108,478 active-duty troops. Of those, 22,792 respondents submitted completed surveys, amounting to a “weighted” response rate -- adjusted for non-proportional sampling -- of 24 percent.
That “is not a good response rate, though it’s a common one,” Lavrakas said.
“For civilian surveys, we look for higher response rates than that,” said Segal. He said it’s impossible to know whether many choose not to participate because they’re unaffected by sexual assault, or if they simply suffer from “survey exhaustion” in a heavily polled military.
Parrish, whose advocacy group is lobbying for a bill to investigate sexual assaults outside the military chain of command, said the survey’s numbers “are definitely not inflated. It has always been our concern that these surveys don’t come near to capturing the extent of the crisis. This is based on what we see and hear from veterans and service members facing the crisis in real time.”