In an interview with MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand offered a striking statistic about sexual misconduct in the military.
"We've had sexual assaults in the military forever," Gillibrand said on April 23, 2013, but "a new report the DOD published found is that one in five ... women are receiving unwanted sexual contact, but also 3.3 percent of men."
We wondered if Gillibrand -- who is sponsoring legislation on the matter -- was reporting the numbers accurately.
The report Gillibrand mentioned is the Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel from the U.S. Defense Department. (Gillibrand shorthands the agency as the DOD). The study, which samples tens of thousands of members of the military anonymously, is undertaken every three years. The just-released report covers 2011, addressing such issues as alcohol and tobacco use, mental health and other issues.
The study found that 21.7 percent of women had experienced "unwanted sexual contact ... since joining the military, by someone in the military." (It found that 5.8 percent had experienced unwanted sexual contact by a civilian since joining the military.)
The comparable percentage for men experiencing unwanted sexual contact was 3.3 percent (by a member of the military) and 2.4 percent (by a civilian).
So Gillibrand has accurately reported the percentages. The only element of her claim that’s slightly misleading is that she referred to service members who "are receiving unwanted sexual contact." That makes it sound like they are currently having unwanted contact or had it in the recent past.
In fact, the statistics refer to unwanted contact that happened "since joining the military," which, for some survey respondents with long tenures in the military, may have been years ago.
It’s worth noting that the percentages have risen since the 2008 survey. That year, 12.4 percent of women and 2.2 percent of men had experienced unwanted contact. (The 2008 survey did not distinguish between contact by members of the military and civilians.) In addition, only a small fraction of these cases are reported to the authorities, and only some of those proceed to trial.
The report is unclear about whether the increase from 2008 to 2011 stems from a rise in the number of incidents or fuller reporting of the incidents that do occur. Whatever the reason, the report did say that "reported rates of unwanted sexual contact, particularly among female service members, warrant attention and action."
Gillibrand said that "one in five" women in the military "are receiving unwanted sexual contact," as are "3.3 percent of men." Her phrasing is somewhat misleading because her words suggest more recent incidents than the survey indicates. The survey included incidents anytime since the person joined the military. Still, her numbers are correct. We rate her statement Mostly True.