The Pentagon reported a 13% increase in sexual assault among military service members in the last year, according to recently published data from the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

According to reporting data, 8,866 sexual assault reports were made to the Department of Defense in Fiscal Year 2021, an increase from 7,816 the year before.

What You Need To Know

  • The Pentagon reported a 13% increase in sexual assault among military service members in the last year

  • While the number of reports increased, the rate of reporting decreased from one report per every three members to one report in every five members

  • The rates of misconduct suggest an "overall growth in unhealthy military climate," said a DoD leader
  • The report comes one year after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced reforms to eliminate sexual assault within the military

The rates of misconduct suggest “an overall growth in unhealthy military climate,” Gilbert Cisneros, the DoD’s Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, wrote in Aug. 29 letters to chairs of Senate and Congressional committees regarding veterans’ affairs and armed services.

While the number of reports increased, the rate of reports apparently fell — about one in five service members reported sexual assault in 2021, down from one in three members reporting in 2016 and 2018. (No statistical testing was done between 2018 and 2021.)

According to data within the report, more than half of “unrestricted reports” — reports that trigger investigations with law enforcement and command staff — involved assaults on service members, by service members. The overwhelming majority of those were male-on-female assaults.

In a press release issued on Sept. 1, Cisneros sounded a more optimistic tone.

“Across the entire Department of Defense, we are building enduring cultural change on an unprecedented scale.  We are incorporating accountability and transparency into our response process while establishing a professionalized prevention workforce to reduce harmful behaviors and promote the well-being of our Service members.” Cisneros wrote. “Taken together, the efforts will set the right conditions to reduce and eliminate unwanted sexual contact, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the Military Departments.”

According to the Department of Defense, disciplinary action was taken in 2,683 cases — or 67% — against accused service members. About 2% of cases were unfounded.

According to the report, vicitms of sexual assault often do not report an incident for a handul of reasons: they’d rather forget about and move on from their assault; they don’t want people to know; they don’t want to get in trouble for something they did; or they don’t want be labeled a troublemaker.

That last point is key — less than half of women surveyed saw thir leaders acting in a “fully supportive manner” after making a complaint, and 21% of women believed filing a sexual harassment report would be “too risky.”

The top reasons for not reporting, according to surveyed women and men, include thinking their assault was not serious enough to report, and thinking that no action would be taken by higher-ups. About 47 percent of women also cited concerns of potential negative consequences from coworkers or peers.

Ashlea Klahr, director of health and resilience research for the Pentagon, told the Associated Press that some of the decline may reflect a broader distrust in the military and other government organizations that has deepened in recent years.

“We also see declining retention intentions, and declining confidence in potential recruits and in their influencers in terms of whether or not the military is doing a good job of addressing sexual assault,” she said.

The report comes less than a year after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced plans to combat sexual harassment and assault within the military.

“We will build back the trust of our personnel thorugh demonstratable progress, clear and enduring implementation mechanisms, increased transparency, and continued senior leader invovlement,” Lloyd wrote in a memo to senior Pentagon leadership. “No one single action the Department can take will fix this problem. Ending the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military demands strong leadership across the enterprise.”

Lloyd attached the approved recommendations of an independent review commision, seeking to “pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military.” That commission returned a four-tiered implementation plan, which seeks to give greater support to sexual assault victims; establish offices of special victims prosecutors; revised definitions; and modernized education, amid an exhaustive list of recommendations.  

However, the changes are quite a ways away. The initial roadmap, published in Sept. 2021, calls for Tier 1 plans to be implemented by 2027; the entire plan, including objectives dependent on prior tier work being completed, is estimated to be implemented by 2030.