Military Sexual Assault: Why Are Service Members at Risk and What Can Be Done to Prevent It?

At a congressional hearing earlier this year on the military’s response to sexual assault, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., revealed that she was raped by a superior officer during her time serving in the Air Force. Similar to many fellow service members who shared the same experience, she chose not to report it. 

“Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time,” said McSally at the hearing. “I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways.”

When she chose to disclose later in her military career, the responses she received were wholly inadequate. In fact, she said that she “felt like the system was raping [her] all over again.”

Years have passed since McSally retired from the Air Force in 2010, and the military has taken some action to address the issue of sexual assault. Created by the Department of Defense, a Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force reviewed how the military handles sexual assault and offered a number of recommendations to protect and support survivors (PDF, 558 KB).

But a 2019 Pentagon report on sexual assault in the military ranks illuminated just how prevalent the problem remains. In 2018, approximately 20,500 service members experienced sexual assault in the military, about a 38% increase since 2016.

To shed light on why sexual assault remains a problem within the military, the MSW@USC sat down with Sara Kintzle, an associate research professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families. Kintzle has not only done extensive research on sexual assault within the military but also works on prevention efforts and skills trainings for service members.

“There has been a culture shift within the military, with a pretty strong effort to recognize that sexual assault is something that happens, that there are factors within the military that make people vulnerable to experiencing sexual assault, and that more needs to be done to address those issues and to support people who report,” Kintzle said.

How Prevalent Is Military Sexual Assault?

Military sexual assault affects service members of all ages, genders, sexualities and ranks. Approximately 6.2% of active duty women and 0.7% of active duty men ages 17 to 24 experienced sexual assault in 2018. The aforementioned Pentagon report indicates that the majority of sexual assaults in 2018 occurred between people ages 17 to 24 who work, train or live in close proximity to each other. Female service members reported that offenders were most often friends or acquaintances.

Pie chart of the number of service members who experienced sexual assault and line graph showing the rates of assault for men and women over time.

Approximately 20,500 service members experienced sexual assault in 2018, comprising 6.2% of female service members and 0.7% of male service members.

Go to the bottom of the page for a tabular version of data regarding the number of service members who experienced sexual assault in the past year and the differences in prevalence between genders.

Service members who are young, just entering their first duty station, or being transferred to a new duty station are particularly vulnerable, said Kintzle.

“Those are the times when you don’t know a lot of people, when you’re new to the unit,” she said. “Those are times when you’re really shaping your views about the culture of the military.”

One positive finding from the Pentagon study is the uptick in reporting. During the past decade, reporting rates have quadrupled. In 2018, approximately one-third of those estimated to have experienced sexual assault reported the incident, though the rate for active duty men (17%) significantly lags behind that of active duty women (37%).

Line graph of the number of reports of sexual assault of service members since 2008.

The total number of reports of sexual assault filed by service members has increased from 2,340 in fiscal year 2008 to 6,053 in fiscal year 2018.

Go to the bottom of the page for a tabular version of data regarding reports of sexual assault filed by service members.

How Can Military Sexual Assault Affect Service Members’ Health?

Kintzle and her colleagues published a study in 2017 that details the effects of military sexual assault on physical and psychological health. Challenges that people who have experienced sexual assault can face as a result of sexual trauma include but are not limited to:

  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorder
  • Substance misuse
  • Panic disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Sexual assault trauma can have short- and long-term effects. Compared to civilians, those who experience military sexual assault may be less able to take time off or away from work to process their trauma. They may also be forced to relive their trauma when continuing to live and work alongside their assailant. If developed, psychological and emotional problems can affect a person’s ability to perform physically and maintain full employment, reducing overall quality of life.

These issues can also develop years after the incident has occurred and the service member has separated from the military. 

“For some women who were in the military 20, 30, or 40 years ago, they talk about being sexually assaulted and waking up the next day and just trying to move on with their lives,” Kintzle said. “It wasn’t until they got out of the military, or when they got married and had children that, all of a sudden, the emotions and everything they pushed away came back into their lives and caused a lot of pain and discomfort.”

To ensure people receive timely and appropriate care so they can address their experience and cope with what has happened, the military will need to acknowledge the psychological impact of sexual assault. In another study on mental health care utilization in female veterans who have experienced sexual trauma, Kintzle and colleagues found a number of barriers to getting care including avoidance, stigma, lack of availability of gender-sensitive care, poor relationship with the military system and concerns about the effect on one’s career. Men who have experienced sexual assault can encounter even greater stigma from leadership who choose to avoid the issue. 

What Role Does Military Culture Play in Military Sexual Assault? 

In a separate review article regarding the complex dynamics of military sexual assault, Kintzle and her co-authors delve into the root causes and cultural factors within the military that make this problem so difficult to address. The root causes for military sexual assault mirror those of sexual assaults among civilians but may be exacerbated by military culture.

One root cause identified by Kintzle and colleagues is gender stereotypes. The patriarchal structure of the military and the emphasis placed on masculine ideals may encourage notions of dominance, aggression, self-sufficiency and risk taking. When added to power differentials between men and women in the military and a culture of homophobia, this can lead to hyper-masculine men who choose to prove their masculinity through the use of sexual language and behavior. The authors note that hyper-masculinity can also become dangerous when combined with a sense of entitlement to sex. Soldiers sometimes learn to limit their empathy in order to complete combat duties and could potentially apply that to fellow service members, making it easier to perpetrate sexual assault. 

Another cause that the authors identify is cultural acceptance. Like civilians who have experienced sexual assault, many of those in the military do not seek help or report sexual assault because they fear nothing will be done. They may face blame, invasions of privacy, incredulous questioning and even retaliation, all of which can cause secondary victimization.


of women who were assaulted and made a report said the experience of reporting was negative.


said the experience of reporting was negative and they were met with attempts to deter them.

Source: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. (2019, May 2). “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.” Department of Defense. 

However, unlike the root causes, there are cultural factors that are specific to the military that contribute to sexual assault and underreporting, such as unit cohesion.

“Reporting a sexual assault can feel like a betrayal to their unit,” Kintzle said. “They can feel like they’re going to cause trouble and disrupt the cohesion and the morale of their group, and so that adds a level of conflict to the situation that you might not have in other situations where you are reporting sexual assault.”

Factors in Military Culture That Influence Sexual Assault and Reporting

Value on performance: Leaders may minimize or dismiss claims against high performers as a result of the value placed on individual and team performance.

Problem resolution at the lowest level: Service members are expected to resolve conflicts between themselves, which can result in harassment and assault going unreported. 

Movement of military personnel: Movement of personnel is essential for professional development but allows perpetrators to take advantage of others who are new to the unit.

Team allegiance: Reporting a team member can be seen as a form of team betrayal. Other team members may feel that reporting is unnecessarily making a big deal.

Leadership responsibility: When reports are made, leaders may feel that they will be blamed for allowing such an environment to exist. They may not want to act on incidents.

Military reporting system: Reporting is a complicated process. While service members can choose to report privately, that confidentiality can be difficult to maintain.

Military resilience building programs: Service members are trained to cope in stressful situations. This emphasis on resilience may actually prevent people from getting help.

Prior restrictions on job assignments: For many years, women were restricted from positions that led to promotion, sending the message that they were not as valuable as men.

Emphasis on training: All service members receive the same prevention training, but everyone is not at equal risk all the time. The trainings lack health risk reduction strategies.

Living arrangements: Coed dormitories and barracks are high-risk areas. Significant efforts should be undertaken to enhance the safety of the occupants.

Military legal system: Various rules make convictions difficult. Old policies allowed military performance of the perpetrator and the lifestyle of their victim to be considered as evidence.  

What Can Be Done to Address Military Sexual Assault?

Kintzle and her co-authors provide a number of recommendations for how to address the problem of sexual assault in the military:

  1. Hold leadership accountable. Leaders at all levels are responsible for creating a healthy climate and should be monitored to ensure that they are not minimizing claims or retaliating.
  2. Improve the reporting system. The military should create a single database that maintains all accusations of assault as well as harassment and stalking to identify serial predators. All individuals who see an incident should be held accountable for reporting it, but the person who experienced the assault should be the only person deciding whether to file a formal report.
  3. Modify existing laws to prevent assault. Certain laws should be reviewed to determine if they actually create barriers to reporting or are used as retaliation against those who report.
  4. Provide increased support for survivors. The medical treatment protocol may be insufficient, and those who experience assault may need long-term care that addresses psychological issues and other concerns related to transitioning out of the military.
  5. Improve sexual assault prevention skill training. These trainings should focus on psychoeducation and risk-reduction skills, with special attention paid to addressing root causes and cultural factors in the military.

Kintzle has helped to develop a sexual assault prevention program that has been pilot tested at several army bases throughout the United States. The program focuses on skills training and education, homing in on specific moments when service members are most vulnerable to sexual assault, such as when they transfer to a new duty station. Training for a woman entering her first duty station would be focused on what her specific military experience is going to be like and how she can protect herself.

“That does not mean that if sexual assault does occur that they are to blame, but we want to give people all the tools they need to decrease susceptibility as much as possible,” Kintzle explained.

A leader, on the other hand, may receive training that focuses more on what to do if someone discloses sexual assault. The training might cover questions like: How do I react in the right way? What do I say? How do I show someone who claims sexual assault that I believe them?

These trainings are designed to help service members speak out when they see or experience something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Rather than simply learning about what constitutes assault and how to report, service members are active participants in the conversation and can share what they think is and isn’t appropriate and how they would handle the situation.

The overarching goal is to change the culture of the military to ensure that those who experience sexual assault feel supported.

“Someone who discloses sexual assault and feels that they’re believed, that what happened to them is validated, and that their emotions and reaction to it are valid is going to have a very different experience than somebody who is questioned,” Kintzle said. “Those things can really impact the trajectory of how someone heals after a sexual assault.”

The following section includes tabular data from the graphic in this post.

Sexual Assault in the Military

Estimated Number of Service Members who Experienced Sexual Assault in the Past Year


Past Year Prevalence of Sexual Assault

Fiscal YearMenWomen

Source: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. (2019, May 2). “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.” Department of Defense. 

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Sexual Assault Reporting in the Military

Number of Sexual Assaults Reported by Service Members for Incidents That Occurred During Military Service

Fiscal YearNumber of Reports

Source: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. (2019, May 2). “Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.” Department of Defense.

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Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.