The prevalence of sexual assault in the active-duty force declined compared with levels last measured in 2021, marking the first decrease in nearly a decade.  

The figures, released yesterday as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, reflect significant progress on reducing unwanted sexual contact amid a series of Defense Department reforms aimed at tackling the issue.  

Rates of unwanted sexual contact affecting active-component women decreased from 8.4% to 6.8% between 2021 and 2023. Rates of unwanted sexual contact affecting active-component men appeared to also decrease from 1.5% to 1.3% but the change was not statistically significant. 

In total, nearly 7,000 fewer service members experienced sexual assault in 2023 than in 2021, according to DOD estimates.  

“That is 7,000 people that will not have to deal with the scourge of this crime,” said Beth Foster, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. 

Foster credited Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III with the departmentwide focus on preventing sexual assault under which she said is beginning to move the trend in the right direction. 

“The department’s leadership has made this a top priority issue and has been deeply committed to this work,” she said. “And that work is starting to bend the curve.” 

Since taking office, Austin has taken a series of steps to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault throughout the ranks. 

In 2021, Austin launched the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military to study the issue and provide recommendations to department leaders on how to reduce instances of unwanted sexual contact.  

That same year, the commission made 82 recommendations directed to the department focused on accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support. Austin approved those recommendations and directed the department to complete implementation by fiscal year 2030. 

This year’s report is the department’s first assessment of sexual assault prevalence since the implementation of those recommendations began in earnest. 

Under Austin’s leadership, the department has also undertaken the most significant changes to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice since its creation in 1950, standing up the Offices of Special Trial Counsel within the services to independently prosecute sexual assault and other specified crimes. The change shifts prosecutorial discretion for 13 serious criminal offenses from unit commanders to independent, specially trained military attorneys. Austin has also driven significant resource investments in eliminating sexual assault, nearly doubling, with Congress’ support, the funding for sexual assault prevention efforts in fiscal years 2023 and 2024.  

“This investment not only ensures that we’re taking care of our service members, but this investment in building healthy climates helps the department recruit and maintain a more ready and resilient force,” Foster said.  

The decrease in prevalence of sexual assault affecting active-duty women outlined in this year’s report is driven by statistically significant decreases in both penetrative and attempted-penetrative unwanted sexual contact.  

However, the downward trend in the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact affecting women was not consistent across all services, according to the report. The figures show statistically significant decreases in unwanted sexual contact for active-duty women in the Navy and Air Force, as well as those in the National Guard.  

There were no statistically significant changes by service for men.  

The report also notes statistically significant decreases in unhealthy command climate indicators, which are highly correlated with the decrease in unwanted sexual contact.  

The figures show statistically significant decreases in women experiencing sexual harassment, climates tolerant of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and low levels of unit support for intervention between 2021 and 2023.  

Men also reported declines in experiences of sexual harassment, a climate of sexual harassment and low levels of unit support for intervention.  

Trust in military leadership among both women and men also increased between 2021 and 2023, though trust remains lower among women than men.  

The department also released figures on reports of sexual assault at the military service academies, indicating that the total number of reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault decreased during the 2022-2023 academic program year.  

While reported incidents at the academies decreased, the figures do not include estimated prevalence survey data, which will be released next year in accordance with the standard timeline mandated by Congress.  

Defense leaders said that while they are encouraged by the report, there is still more work to do to eliminate sexual assault across the department.  

“Last week, I convened the deputy secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the service secretaries, and the service chiefs to discuss this report’s findings,” Austin said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “I made clear that we’re making significant progress, but we must double down on our efforts to end sexual assault and sexual harassment. This remains a key readiness issue across the joint force.” 

“The only acceptable number of instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment in the U.S. military is zero,” he said. “We owe it to all our service members to get this right.”

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