Sexual assault is a serious issue affecting our Navy. It hurts our people, undermines trust, and impacts readiness. The Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program provides a valuable service to combat this problem. While response is a critical part of the program, it is far better to stop the event from occurring, hence the increased focus on prevention.
By analogy, in missile defense the military speaks in terms of “breaking the kill chain,” by engaging an entire threat system, starting with the sensors that make the initial detection, to the command-and-control process, and to the fire control systems that direct the weapon, working through all steps until the weapon hits the target. The goal is to break the kill chain as far “to the left” or as early as possible in the sequence of events, ideally defeating missiles before they are even launched.
The same preemptive mindset should be fully applied to the SAPR program. Two critical elements, though, are missing from the far left hand side of the SAPR program: screening and deterrence.
The DOD Is Not an Island
The military is combating aspects of the sexual assault problem that fall under its authority, working to change the environment, alter behaviors, promote intervention, increase victim services and support, and improve the reporting and prosecution of cases. This is broadly in line with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which states, “comprehensive prevention strategies should address factors at each of the levels that influence sexual violence—the individual, relationship, community, and society.”1 Military regulations govern a service member’s conduct; the manner in which service members interact with one another in professional relationships; and, by establishing a command climate, a number of community aspects. Societal factors, on the other hand, are beyond military control.
Sexual assault is a problem in American society overall. A 2010 study showed that in the United States, 18.3 percent of women and 1.4 percent of men reported being raped in their lifetimes.2 To examine a subset of the general population, the age distribution of those serving in the military is similar to that of the population attending universities, making the two interesting demographics to compare. A 2000 study showed that 15.5 percent of college women reported being sexually victimized in some way during that current academic year, revealing a systemic problem.3 In contrast, the 2014 Rand Military Workplace Study estimated that 4.3 percent of active-duty women experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in the year prior to being surveyed.4 When addressing a crowd at his former high school in 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was asked by a female high school student if she would be safe from sexual assault if she joined the military.5 Given these statistics, he could have replied, “Well, it’s probably safer than college.”
The DOD is not a closed system; it is a microcosm of society and struggles with issues similar to those of the general public. Findings from the 2015 annual SAPR report demonstrate the fluidity between U.S. society at large and the military, allowing the problem of sexual assault to spill over between the two.6 Military-on-military attacks accounted for 60 percent of reported incidents; the other 40 percent involved confirmed civilians or unknown parties as victims or perpetrators. It should also be noted that 8 percent of incidents reported by military victims occurred before they joined the military, and in 22 percent of cases the alleged perpetrators were either confirmed U.S. civilians, foreign nationals, or unknown (i.e. not attributable to U.S. service members). There are certainly military perpetrators, but focusing on the overall reported numbers without acknowledging nuances in the data yields a distorted picture, causing the military to receive “credit” for assaults its members did not commit.
That said, the American public, Congress, and the White House expect more from those in uniform. Current DOD initiatives are being taken seriously and service cultures are changing.7 There is no one recipe for successful prevention, however. The CDC acknowledges that “Few programs, to date, have been shown to prevent sexual violence perpetration. A systematic review conducted by CDC’s Injury Center, and updated by an ongoing review of newer evidence, has identified only three programs to date that have been shown to be effective, using a rigorous evaluation methodology, for preventing sexual violence perpetration.”8 Two of these programs—Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries—both focus on youth during the formative years of adolescence. The third program—Real Consent—targets college-aged men with a bystander approach through six 30-minute, web-based, interactive modules. While these programs may be successes, the first two are not applicable to military demographics, and the third, while applicable, would duplicate the military’s existing bystander intervention campaign. The lack of additional programs for adults is not encouraging. The military, however, has one weapon in its arsenal that society does not have: It gets to choose who joins.
Screening for Risk Factors
The CDC cites several individual risk factors that can predispose a person to perpetrate sexual assault: alcohol and drug use, delinquency, empathic deficits, general aggressiveness and acceptance of violence, early sexual initiation, coercive sexual fantasies, preference for impersonal sex and sexual risk-taking, exposure to sexually explicit media, hostility toward women, adherence to traditional gender role norms, hyper-masculinity, suicidal behavior, and prior sexual victimization or perpetration.9 This raises the question as to why the DOD does not screen for these risk factors when considering applicants for military service. DOD should attempt to screen potential perpetrators before they join, preempting their chance to offend in uniform.
Some might say that this is not really a solution because it would not stop offenders; it would just stop them offending in uniform. However, the military’s responsibility is to combat sexual assault within its ranks. Although the military often leads the way on social issues, it has neither the mandate nor the authority to fix this problem for society as a whole. Every potential offender kept out of the military is a success.
Candidates wishing to join the armed forces are subject to batteries of physical, medical, academic, and aptitude tests. Applicants take drug tests and the services check their criminal records. Services screen candidates for a variety of traits that are undesirable or incompatible with military service, from habitual stuttering to membership in extremist groups. Why not throw behavioral tests into the mix to identify those with indicators to commit sexual assault? These tests have shown some validity, such as the 2005 Ohio University study that successfully established predictive links between attitudes of research subjects (initially demonstrated on a baseline questionnaire) and later acts of sexual aggression they admitted to having committed during follow-up surveys three and seven months later.10 The Army started behavioral screening of its sexual assault responders, leading to the removal of about 600 responders from their positions.11 The Army then expanded the screening to include people in positions of authority, such as recruiters and drill instructors (DIs).12 Why not extend this screening to everyone before accepting them for service?
The 2015 SAPR data show that the demographics most associated with perpetration of sexual assault by military members are in the 20–24 age bracket (accounting for 40 percent of offenses for which there is data) and the paygrades E1–E4 (accounting for 56 percent of offenses for which there is data).13 This suggests that the offenders do not lay dormant for 15 years and then commit an assault, but rather assault shortly after joining. In contrast, service members who have been in longer, represented by the 35–49 age bracket, accounted for only 14 percent of offenses (for which there is data). One can infer, then, that much of the problem is drawn in from society: If the problem were a result of immersion in military culture, one would expect the most frequent offenders to be those who had spent the longest time in uniform, which is not the case.
It may seem unfair to penalize someone who has indicators in his or her background but has done nothing wrong. However, good people are routinely penalized or disqualified for things beyond their control: high blood pressure, height, poor vision, allergies. The list is long. They are disqualified, even though they may not currently present symptoms or experience any adverse consequences associated with these conditions.
Screening for indicators that may predispose someone to commit sexual assault might seem ludicrous, but it is analogous to the process of government security background investigations. Based on indicators, whether the person has acted as a threat or not, the government routinely denies (or revokes) clearances, which for many positions are considered a condition of employment. The system is not perfect; background investigations did not stop Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning from leaking classified information. However, that this case was rare implies that the system does a decent job weeding people out. Furthermore, if there is no reliable way to screen out possible sexual assault perpetrators, then why did the Army screen its DIs and SAPR personnel? Were they actually achieving anything, or were those measures taken to present the appearance of action solely to appease political oversight?
All avenues and strategies should be pursued to address sexual assault, starting with an initial screening. While screening will never completely eradicate sexual assault from our ranks, the military needs to stem the inflow of potential offenders. Some offenders will inevitably slip past the goalie, but it would be an improvement over the current situation in which there is no goalie.
SAPR training is the next line of defense against potential offenders who have already entered the military. Current training efforts focus on definitions, expectations, victim behaviors, consent, bystander intervention, reporting, available services, continuum of harm, command climate, command responsibilities, and leadership responsibilities. Simplified into broader terms, the focus is on the victim, the bystander, and the leadership. However, efforts have not focused on the perpetrator—other than to discuss consent (mostly in the context of intoxication) and to explain that “no means no.” A critically important theme is missing: deterrence.
When the Navy wants to discourage a particular behavior, it generally incorporates a strong deterrence message within the overall prevention campaign. For instance, safety briefs often include photos and horror stories of bodily injury as examples of consequences from unsafe practices. Recent alcohol abuse training included a vivid narration of legal costs, fines, lost wages, and jail time associated with a DUI. In the same sense, counterintelligence training presents stories of people who tried to sell U.S. secrets, were caught, convicted of espionage, and are now serving lengthy prison sentences. In contrast to such deterrence messages, typical SAPR training includes only a cursory mention of penalties or those penalized. A frequent message is “the problem is pervasive and it almost always goes unpunished, with only a tiny fraction going to trial and conviction,” which can be received by potential perpetrators as “don’t worry, you’ll never be punished.” The SAPR program must also deter the potential offender.
Among the tools SAPR and other prevention campaigns use are posters displayed in workspaces. There are significant differences, however, between posters aimed at addressing sexual assault and those of other prevention programs. For example, both the visual imagery and message the Navy uses in posters to discourage drinking and driving are clear. (See Figure 1.) In creating this campaign, the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Office gathered input from 700 sailors across the service about what could be done to curb excessive drinking. The majority of responses focused on “loss of pay, rank, and other privileges.” In other words: the penalties.14
In contrast, there is no deterrence message in the SAPR posters. The April 2016 DOD Sexual Assault Awareness Month poster says, “Eliminate Sexual Assault: Know your part, do your part,” and resembles an eye chart.15 Figure 2 shows the 2009 SAPR poster in a side-by-side comparison with a counterintelligence poster, both of which feature three rows of four photos. The SAPR poster shows a collection of service members’ faces, and if not for the small caption on the bottom, one would think it was a poster celebrating diversity. In contrast, the counterintelligence poster shows mug shots, names, and sentences of those convicted of espionage. The empty photo space warns the reader, “Don’t Be Next.” The message is clear and the effect is powerful, but there is no comparable effect from the SAPR poster. What if the SAPR campaign poster adopted the counterintelligence model and showed the mug shots of those convicted, their names, and their prison sentences?
Some say that posters relating to actual cases could re-victimize the survivor of the assault. We must be sensitive to victim privacy, and the posters would feature the perpetrators alone. Furthermore, results of courts-martial are already published monthly and are publicly available. That said, few people see this information; it does not make the news (like commanding officer firings), and it is not on display around the workplace like SAPR material.
The January 2014 White House Council on Women and Girls report “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” stated that “the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) addresses the problem on multiple fronts: among its many original provisions, VAWA created new, tough penalties for abusers, sex offenders and stalkers (and prompted many states to revise their codes); strengthened victims’ abilities to get and enforce protection orders. . . . ”16 It is notable that much like asking sailors about what would prevent alcohol abuse, the top item on this list concerns penalties for offenders, again suggesting that making the punishment clear and prominent would aid the SAPR prevention mission.
Perception versus Reality
There is a perception that the military goes easy on perpetrators of sexual assault. Cases that receive media attention are generally those in which someone, sometimes a senior officer, is exonerated or gets a relatively minor “slap on the wrist,” broadcasting the message that no one is held accountable and thus further hurting deterrence.
Depending on the nature of the offense, evidence collected, and degree of victim participation, there is a wide range of venues available to the military to assign punishment, including adverse administrative action, non-judicial punishment, and court-martial. Additional charges are available under the military justice system that have no civilian equivalent (e.g., conduct unbecoming). Unlike in civilian courts, there are no rules of evidence, and the burden of proof required to punish an offender under non-judicial punishment is “preponderance of evidence” versus “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A military court-martial only requires two-thirds majority to convict, while civilian criminal cases require a unanimous decision. These facts, taken in aggregate, suggest a military offender has a greater likelihood to be punished in some way than a civilian one. Indeed, the military has tried and obtained convictions in sexual assault cases that civilian courts would not even have brought to trial.17
Service members who appear to get off easy are often receiving a punishment that only the military can give. While an “other than honorable” discharge or loss of retirement benefits appears to be getting off easy, in the civilian world many of these perpetrators would have never been charged, much less face any consequences. A “dishonorable” discharge from the military automatically strips the service member of all education, health, and retirement benefits—all of which could translate into a significant amount of money. For example, a lieutenant commander (O-4) retiring with 20 years of service would make over $1.3 million in 30 years of retirement (without adjusting for inflation). However, this part of the story rarely, if ever, receives a mention.
These are messages the SAPR program needs to promote. We need to publicize those who have been incarcerated, from short-term confinement to the 2012 incident on board the Vella Gulf (CG-72) that resulted in the perpetrator receiving a life sentence.18 We also need to explain what different discharges and loss of benefits actually mean, and highlight the fact that many of these criminals would never have been charged in the civilian system, which could serve to counterbalance the “slap on the wrist” perception.
The Way Ahead
SAPR program must use all tools available to stop these crimes against our shipmates and start a deterrence component to the program. The message must be that if you commit a sexual assault, whether officer or enlisted, at sea or ashore, at home or abroad, you will be punished to the fullest possible extent. Punishment is key, but it may not necessarily mean jail time, as studies have shown that the surety of punishment is a greater deterrence than the severity of the punishment.19
There is no silver bullet to combat sexual assault. We must intervene as far to the left as possible, starting before potential offenders even enter the armed forces and continuing with a strong deterrence message. In an age where the Navy has resorted to interactive theater workshops to combat sexual assault,20 leveraging approaches other prevention programs use, like screening and deterrence, just might be crazy enough to work.
2. Michele C. Black, Kathleen C. Basile, Matthew J. Breiding, Sharon G. Smith, Mikel L. Walters, Melissa T. Merrick Jieru Chen, and Mark R. Stevens, “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010 Summary Report,” National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2011, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf.
3. Bonnie S. Fisher, Francis T. Cullen, and Michael G. Turner, “The Victimization of College Women,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, NCJ 182369, December 2000, www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf.
4. Department of Defense, “Fiscal Year 2014 Department Of Defense Annual Report On Sexual Assault In The Military,” May 2015,
5. Molly O’Toole, “Defense Secretary to Troops: I Need You to Say ‘Enough’ to Sexual Assault,” DefenseOne.com, April 22, 2015, www.defenseone.com/management/2015/04/defense-secretary-troops-i-need-you-say-enough-sexual-assault/110836.
6. Department of Defense, “Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault,” May 2016, http://sapr.mil/public/docs/reports/FY15_Annual/Appendix_B_Statistical_Data_on_Sexual_Assault.pdf.
8. CDC, “Sexual Violence: Prevention Strategies,” www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/prevention.html.
9. CDC, “Sexual Violence: Risk and Protective Factors,” www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/riskprotectivefactors.html.
10. Catherine Loh, Christine A. Gidycz, Tracy R. Lobo, and Rohini Luthra, “Characteristics A Prospective Analysis of Sexual Assault Perpetration: Risk Factors Related to Perpetrator,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, October 2005,
11. Brendan McGarry, “588 Soldiers Removed after Sexual Assault Review,” Military.com, February 26, 2014, www.military.com/daily-news/2014/02/26/588-soldiers-removed-after-sex-assault-review.html.
12. Department of Defense Sexual Assault and Prevention Response, “Department Of Defense Annual Report On Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2013,”
13. Department of Defense, “Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault.”
14. “Sailors Develop ‘Keep What You’ve Earned’ Campaign,” U.S. Navy press release, 7 May 2013, www.jointbasemdl.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123346886.
15. SAPRO, Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2015 poster, http://sapr.mil/public/docs/saapm/2016/SAAPM_2016_PosterV2.jpg.
6. The White House Council on Women and Girls, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” 2014, www.sapr.mil/public/docs/research/201401_WhiteHouse_CouncilonWomenandGirls_RapeandSexualAssault.pdf.
7. J. Zeldis, “5@5: Your Questions Answered About Navy Sexual Assault Prevention,” Navylive.dodlive, 6 August 2013, http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2013/08/06/55-your-questions-answered-about-navy-sexual-assault-prevention.
8. Dianna Cahn, “Sailor guilty of rape on ship, gets life in prison,” HamptonRoads.com, 15 December 2012, http://hamptonroads.com/2012/12/sailor-guilty-rape-ship-gets-life-prison.
9. Valerie Wright, “Deterrence in Criminal Justice Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment” (The Sentencing Project, Washington, DC, November 2010),
20. Sarah Shourd, “The Navy’s Best Anti-Rape Weapon: Theater,” The Daily Beast, www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/10/the-navy-s-best-anti-rape-weapon-theater.html.