Congress is putting pressure on the American military to crack down on rape and other types of sexual crimes. The latest Department of Defense report estimates that last year there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact ranging from groping to forced sex.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was talking about the full gamut of these offenses on Face the Nation on June 9, 2013. While much of the focus has been on women, Gillibrand emphasized that "this is not just a woman's issue. More than half of the victims are men." This seemed like a strong rhetorical point that deserved a closer look.
PolitiFact examined a related claim by Gillibrand in April when she cited a survey that asked soldiers whether they had had any unwanted sexual contact by a fellow soldier at any point since joining the military. Given the long tenure of some service members, that question can cover a span of many years. Gillibrand said that 21.7 percent of women and 3.3 percent of men responded yes and we rated her statement Mostly True. Her latest claim is different in that she’s speaking more broadly about the gender of the victims.
The Department of Defense defines unwanted sexual contact as "contact that was against a person’s will or occurred when the person did not or could not consent. The term describes completed and attempted oral, anal, and vaginal penetration with any body part or object, and the unwanted touching of genitalia and other sexually related areas of the body."
The military uses this definition in an annual survey of soldiers and uses the answers to make a statistical estimate of the total number of incidents that took place. That's how military officials came up with the figure of 26,000. Generally speaking, the survey asks about three levels of contact: unwanted touching, attempted sex and completed sex.
In that survey, 6.1 percent of active duty women reported that they had been a victim in some fashion. On the other hand, just 1.2 percent of active duty men described having those sorts of experiences.
At first glance, the numbers might suggest that Gillibrand had it wrong. But Glen Caplin, her communications director, said she was correct because her tally used the percentages to extrapolate the actual count of men and women in the military who have been victims of unwanted sexual contact.
In round figures, about 85 percent of the military are men, or well over 1 million. Caplin said 1.2 percent of the men in the military is about 14,000, while 6.1 percent of active duty women is about 12,000. "So it is more men than women," Caplin said.
We checked with the Department of Defense press office and spokeswoman Cynthia Smith confirmed Caplin’s numbers.
We did find another measurement of the gender differences that seems to tell a different story. In the full 2012 annual report on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, the Pentagon includes the survey results along with a very different set of numbers -- the cases that made it into the official record. The second data set is much smaller, less than 3,000 cases. It represents formal allegations filed by victims plus instances when victims seeking treatment report a violation to a health care provider or staff at a sexual assault prevention office but might not file official charges.
In that official record, women represent about 80 percent or more of the cases.
The large disparity between the total number of men who responded in the survey that they had been victims and the relatively small number who sought treatment or made an official complaint is likely due in part to the greater reluctance of men to report unwanted sexual contact.
Dr. David Lisak, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and founder of One In Six, an advocacy group for sexually abused men, said it is no surprise that male soldiers rarely disclose assaults.
"Men are taught from a very young age that the core elements of masculinity are strength and toughness, and that vulnerability is completely unacceptable," Lisak said. "In a culture such as the military, where the culture of traditional masculinity is often more rigidly enforced than it is in the civilian world, the stigma associated with sexual assault is intensified."
It also seems that on the spectrum of unwanted sexual contact, men often faced less aggressive situations. In the survey, half the men said the most serious incident they experienced was "sexual touching only," while only a third of women said that was the worst thing. In comparison, over half of the women said they had been the victim of an unwanted sexual act that had either been attempted or completed. Only about 15 percent of men in total said they were the victim of an attempted or a completed sexual act.
Gillibrand said more than half the victims of sexual crimes in the military are men. That's not true in terms of the 3,000 sexual contacts that were officially reported, but it is true if you rely on the larger estimate of unwanted sexual contacts that comes from a more comprehensive survey of people in the military.
We rate the statement Mostly True.