Military sexual assault totals down, but trust among women remains low

by Tommy Grant

A Pentagon report released Thursday found that less than half of women in the military trust their chain of command to properly handle reports of sexual assault, posing a continued problem for service leaders even as the number of assault cases fell significantly last year.

But Defense Department officials insist they see positive signs regarding recent reforms designed to bolster trust in leadership and curb assaults, and remain optimistic that additional steps will produce further improvements.

“A lot of those changes are underway, but we know it’s going to take some time before we start to see those numbers,” Beth Foster, executive director of the Defense Department’s Office of Force Resiliency, told reporters Thursday. “We know we have a lot more work to do to rebuild trust, especially amongst our service women.”

According to the military’s annual report on the issue, about 29,000 active-duty troops (15,201 women and 13,860 men) reported experiencing a sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in 2023. That’s almost 7,000 fewer cases (19%) than in 2021, the most recent year such a survey was conducted.

Foster credited the improvement to a host of factors, including reforms put in place by department leadership in 2021 and continued public focus on the issue.

But the 2023 figures still indicate 6.8% of active duty military women and 1.3% of active duty military men faced abuse last year. And survey data showed that only 38% of active duty women said they trust the department to protect their privacy if they report an assault.

In the same survey, 43% of women said they trust the military to keep them safe following an assault, and the same percentage said they believe the institution will “treat you with dignity and respect.”

Among men, rates of trust were significantly higher — 61% on privacy issues, and 66% on safety issues.

Defense officials noted that those trust scores among women rose slightly from 2021, and that 71% of women surveyed said they trust their immediate supervisor to handle sexual harassment and assault issues. That figure stood at 79% among men.

“Again, there’s much more to do, but we believe that is showing us some positive turns in leadership focus on this very important mission space,” said Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

Military officials said they expect reforms underway regarding new specialized prosecutors for sexual assault cases to help bolster victims’ faith in the system.

“We are focused on professionalizing our sexual assault response workforce,” Foster said. “A lot of these folks are performing that role in a collateral duty role, and while they may be very dedicated, victim assistance is a full-time job.”

The full report is available on the Defense Department’s website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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