U.S.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Military sexual assault reports up 50 percent

Officials say increase due to survivors being more comfortable coming forward, although many male victims remain silent

Reports of sexual assaults by members of the military rose 50 percent in 2013 after the government began a vigorous campaign to get more victims to come forward. But ahead of a Pentagon report on the issue being released Thursday, officials said they are still struggling to get more male victims to seek help, and that they will put a greater focus on prevention programs — including plans to review alcohol sales and policies.

There were 5,061 reports of sexual abuse filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 3,374 in 2012.

Officials said prosecutions for sexual assaults in the military have also gone up. The military was able to take some action against 73 percent of the accused perpetrators who were subject to the military justice system, said Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention office. In 2012 that figure was 66 percent.

But officials are still unhappy with the low number of male victims who reported sexual assault, and they say there will be a greater emphasis in the months ahead on getting men to come forward and seek help. Final data obtained by The Associated Press show that about 14 percent of the reports filed last year involved male victims.

Defense officials said Wednesday that encouraging more men to report sexual assaults is a difficult challenge because male survivors often worry that it will make people think they are weak and trigger questions about their sexual orientation.

"There is still a misperception that this is a women's issue and women's crime," Galbreath said. 

With the report’s release Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to call on military services to step up efforts to encourage troops to intervene in assault situations, and to work with military bases and local communities to better train bar workers and promote more responsible alcohol sales. According to officials, alcohol was a factor in as many as two-thirds of the cases.

Under the military's definition, a sexual assault can be anything from unwanted sexual contact, such as inappropriate touching or grabbing, to rape.

While the number of reported assaults shot up sharply in 2013, defense officials said that, based on survey data and other information, they believe the increase was largely due to victims feeling more comfortable coming forward. 

"There is no indication that this increase in reporting constitutes an increase in crime," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "We assess that this unprecedented increase is consistent with a growing confidence in the response systems."

Stepping up campaign

Sexual assault has been a high-priority issue for the military, Congress and the Obama administration over the past year, triggering Capitol Hill hearings and persistent questions about how effectively the military was preventing and prosecuting assaults and how well it was treating the victims.

Over the past two years, military services have increased awareness of the problem and used treatment programs to instill more confidence in the system and get victims to come forward. Phone numbers and contact information for sexual assault prevention officers are plastered across military bases, including inside the doors of bathroom stalls. And top military officers have traveled to bases around the world speaking out on the issue.

At the same time, the military has long struggled to get victims to report sexual assault in a stern military culture that emphasizes rank, loyalty and toughness. 

The Associated Press

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter