Although a new report shows a decrease in the number of sexual assaults at two of the three U.S. military service academies, it's unclear whether the results reflect a drop in the number of attacks or if fewer victims are coming forward.
A total of 70 sexual assaults were reported at the academies between June 2012 and May 2013, according to the Defense Department's yearly report on sexual harassment and violence in the academies, which was released Friday. This compares with 80 sexual assaults reported from the 2011-12 academic program year (APY) report released last year.
Fifty-three of those 70 sexual assaults occurred to cadets and midshipmen while they were in military service, and 11 occurred beforehand, according to the survey. Another five cases were reported by civilians alleging that they were sexually assaulted by a cadet or midshipman. The Naval Academy showed a slight uptick in reports of sexual assault in the 2012-13 APY compared with the previous survey, but the number of reported sexual assaults decreased at the Military Academy and the Air Force Academy in the same time period.
However, "the department cannot determine whether the [overall] decrease in reporting this year at the service academies was due to fewer assaults occurring or fewer victims opting to report," said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Separately, the Service Academy Gender Relations Survey—a biennial study—reports the number of cadets and midshipmen that experience unwanted sexual contact during the previous year. That survey was not released in 2013.
Peer pressure and service-academy culture continue to play a role in preventing sexual-assault victims from coming forward, the report released Friday found. Sexual assault is considered one of the most underreported crimes both inside and outside of the military. The Defense Department's definition of sexual assault does not include sexual harassment.
Elizabeth Van Winkle, with the Defense Department's Manpower Data Center, said that a 2012 department survey found that 80 to 90 percent of females at the service academies reported that they experienced crude, offensive, or sexist behavior during the previous 12 months.
"This is your typical locker-room talk," she said, referring to the offensive behavior. Van Winkle said that focus groups told officials the rates seemed accurate, and "many said we're surprised it's not higher."
Superintendents of the military academies are expected to submit a plan on how to overcome sexual assault and change the current culture by March 31.
Snow said it was his goal to "reduce, with the intent to eliminate, sexual assault in the military. It's a daunting task. I've lost a lot of sleep in my first week on the job."