Sexual Assault Within the United States Military
last updated August 2013
Although sexual assault in the military happens in every country with a military, in recent years particular attention has been given to the United States’ military system.
The 2012 documentary The Invisible War, written and directed by Kirby Dick, caused many viewers to take notice for the first time of the growing problem of sexual assaults occurring within the U.S. military. Since then, the issue has become a top priority for United States Congress members, the President, the Department of Defense, and the general public.[1] Although actions have been taken to curb the amount of assaults, estimates suggest that around 26,000 military service members experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in the year 2012, reflecting an increase of 7,000 from the year 2010.[2]
The United States Department of Defense completed a survey of 22,792 active duty members from September to November of 2012. Of those surveyed, 6.1% of active duty women and 1.2% of active duty men reported instances of unwanted sexual contact that occurred in the last 12 months. For women, this represents a significant increase of 4.7% since 2010.[3]
The survey also reports that, according to the 6.1% who reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012:
  • The top three sexual assault offenders were military coworkers (57%), another military person (40%) and a higher ranking service member who was not in the victim’s chain of command (38%).
  •  In 50% of cases, the offender used physical force (representing a 22% increase from 2006).
  •  In 30% of the cases, the victim was sexually harassed either before or after the sexual assault incident. In 8% of cases, the victim was stalked before or after the incident. In 20% of cases, the victim was both sexually harassed and stalked either before or after the incident.
  • In 25% of the cases, the perpetrator was in the victim’s chain of command.[4]
66% of  women who were sexually assaulted did not make any kind of report to a military authority. The reasons victims listed for not reporting incidents included:
  • The victim did not want anyone to know (70%).
  • The victim felt uncomfortable making a report (66%).
  •  The victim did not think the report would be kept confidential (51%).[5]
Many women, worldwide, and in the military or civilian society, do not report sexual assault  for fear of social or professional retaliation. Of the 33% of surveyed victims of sexual assault who did report an incident of unwanted sexual contact to a military authority:
  • 3% experienced professional retaliation only;
  •  31% experienced social retaliation only;
  • 26% experienced a combination of both professional and social retaliation; and
  • 38% experienced no retaliation.[6]
Of the 66% of women who did not report the incident of unwanted sexual contact:
  • 43% did not report because they thought nobody would believe them;
  • 28% thought that their performance evaluations and their opportunities for promotions would suffer;
  • 23% thought they would be punished for other infractions (such as underage drinking); and
  • 23% reported being afraid that they would be assaulted again.[7]
Examples of Inadequate Response to Sexual Assault in the United States Military
In 1992, an investigation revealed that 83 women and 7 men had been sexually assaulted during one weekend at the 35th Annual Tailhook Symposium, a convention for naval aviators, in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States[8]. Assaults occurred in multiple areas of the Hilton hotel that housed the convention. Most assaults, however, occurred on the third-floor where up to 200 men formed a “gauntlet” and assaulted women who walked through the hallway.[9] After the incident, 119 Navy and 21 Marine officers were referred for disciplinary action. None of the 140 cases went to trial. Half were dismissed due to lack of evidence. Although many received fines or career penalties, almost all of the offenders were charged with misconduct other than sexual assault.
Aberdeen Proving Ground
In 1996, 12 officers were accused of sexually assaulting female trainees under their command at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland, United States. The officers used their authority to prey on women completing basic training. One company commander and three drill sergeants were sent to prison. 7 of the remaining officers were discharged or punished administratively and one officer was cleared.[10]
United States Air Force Academy 2003 Survey
A survey, given to female Air Force soldiers in 2003, revealed that 12% of the female graduating class at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States, had been sexually assaulted during the four years at the academy. Air Force officials initially played down the incident but then replaced the academy’s leadership and called for an “agenda of change.”[11]
San Antonio-Lackland
This scandal, centered around the Joint Base San Antontio-Lackland in San Antonio, Texas, United States, has become one of the worst in Air Force history with over two dozen instructors court-martialed for misconduct involving over 70 trainees since 2009. Since the allegations began in 2011, Lackland has implemented many changes, including: a buddy system; an increased number of surveillance cameras;  and  hiring more female training instructors.[12] Investigations at Lackland are ongoing. A new Air Force policy, which took effect July 2013, requires commanders to initiate separation actions for any officer or enlisted airmen found to have committed any kind of sexual misconduct.[13]
In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Rashida Manjoo issued a report on violence against women in the United States. In her report she noted:
Violence against women in the military is prompted by numerous factors, ranging from a very hierarchic and command driven structure, to a culture that promotes masculine traits of power and control, and a pattern of underreporting and impunity. Survivors explained how perpetrators often exert control over victims, and are likely to outrank them. If the perpetrators are in the victims’ chain of command, reporting the incident can seem impossible and victims often feel that they need to make a choice between their military career and seeking justice. [14]
Women soldiers face unique barriers after reporting cases of sexual assault. For example, problems with the military justice system allow many perpetrators to evade justice. Additionally, many soldiers who report unwanted sexual conduct face retaliation and victim-blaming. For more on these issues, please see the Military Justice System and Secondary Victimization pages of this website.

[1] Ed O’Keefe, “Why Congress likely will move quickly to curb sex assaults in the military,” Washington Post, June 5, 2013,; Michael O’Brien, “Obama: Sex assaults undermine military's integrity,” NBC News, August 7, 2013,; Darren Samuelsohn, “Defense Department considers more action on sexual assault,” Politico, August 7, 2013,
[2] United States Department of Defense, Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military: Fiscal Year 2012, Volume 1, April 15, 2013,
[3] United States Department of Defense, 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, March 15, 2013,
[4] United States Department of Defense, supra note 2.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Michael Winerip, “Revisiting the Military’s Tailhook Scandal,” The New York Times, May 13, 2013,
[9] “Tailhook ’91: The Gauntlet,”, accessed August 13, 2013,
[10] Jackie Spinner, “In the Wake of Sex Scandal, Caution is the Rule at Aberdeen,” Washington Post, November 7, 1997,
[11] Diana Jean Schemo, “Rate of Rape at Academy Is Put at 12% in Survey,” The New York Times, August 29, 2003,
[12] Emily Baucum, “Exclusive Look at Lackland’s Changes in Wake of Sex Scandal,” News 4, August 7, 2013,
[13] Jennifer H. Svan, “Air Force to dismiss anyone found to have committed sexual misconduct,” Stars and Stripes, August 13, 2013,
[14] Special Rapporteur on violence against Women, its causes and consequences, Mission to the United States of America, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/17/26/Add.5, June 6, 2011,