Study examines servicewomen’s reporting of sexual assault in the military

Published on September 24, 2014

photo of Michelle Mengeling
Michelle Mengeling

Sexual assault in the military has come under increasing public and congressional attention in recent years, as studies show sexual assault is significantly underreported, both in U.S. civilian and military populations. While the Department of Defense has promoted greater reporting of sexual assault, service women remain reluctant to come forward due to perceived and real barriers, according to a new study by the University of Iowa and the VA health‑care system in Iowa City.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examined why military sexual assault reporting remains low. The researchers interviewed 1,339 currently serving and veteran service women about experiences throughout their military careers and compared nonreporters’ barriers to reporting with actual reporter experiences.

Among the research participants, 15 percent had experienced sexual assault in the service, but only a quarter of victims reported the crime. Knowledge of how to report a sexual assault had increased compared to previous research, with 65 percent of participants saying they knew how to report, yet knowledge did not lead to increased reporting, they found.

Since 2005, service members have had two options for reporting military sexual assault ‑‑ restricted and unrestricted. Restricted reporting allows for confidential reporting, medical treatment, counseling and a forensic examination without triggering an official investigation. Unrestricted reporting provides the same medical services, involves law enforcement and the military command and initiates a criminal investigation.

Even with the two reporting options, service women were still reluctant to come forward, according to the study’s authors. While restricted reporting was rated as a more positive experience, unrestricted reporting was used more often. However, the majority of unrestricted reporters indicated that no disciplinary action or legal action was initiated against the perpetrator. They also faced hostility from their military peers because they reported, according to the survey.

“These findings support the need to address both the process and outcomes of reporting sexual assault in the military,” says Michelle Mengeling, associate research scientist in internal medicine at the UI and the paper’s corresponding author. “Underreporting these crimes reduces the likelihood that offenders will face legal consequences, which undermines trust within units and jeopardizes the health and safety of all military personnel.”

“The lack of reporting is still a major problem,” echoes James Torner, professor of epidemiology in the University of Iowa College of Public Health and a study author. “The service women interviewed believed there were multiple adverse consequences of reporting.”

Reasons cited for not reporting sexual assault included concerns about lack of confidentiality, negative effects on careers, an adverse work environment, and the belief that nothing would be done. These concerns were not unfounded, as the study showed reporters’ experiences validated non‑reporters’ perceptions of negative outcomes.

There was no difference in reporting rates between service types, branches of the military, active status, or deployment experience. However, the authors find service women with higher education levels and military rank were less likely to report.

Mengeling is an affiliate investigator with the Center for Comprehensive Access and Delivery Research and Evaluation as well as the VA Office of Rural Health, Veterans Rural Health Resource Center‑Central Region, at the Iowa City VA Health Care System. Study authors include Anne Sadler, investigator and acting chief of psychology at the Iowa City VA Medical Center; and Brenda Booth, Center for Mental Healthcare Outcomes and Research, Central Arkansas Healthcare System and Department of Psychiatry, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs funded the study.