There is an unwarranted stigma placed on male survivors of sexual assault in both civilian and military society. As a result, too few come forward. Too few seek the help they need.
But in the military, the challenge is compounded by an environment that in many ways works against survivors, eroding their confidence and even their ability to report these crimes.
The disturbing prevalence of sexual assault against men within the United States armed forces has been illustrated recently by several in-depth reports. These studies crystalize what we have long known to be a crisis too often ignored and not discussed within the military.
In March, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report acknowledged the staggering number of men in the military that have been sexually assaulted, and hinted at the underlying problem, writing: "DOD has recognized that a cultural change is needed to address sexual assaults but has not yet taken several key steps to further this change."
For all victims, male and female, the environment frequently acts as a deterrent rather than a support structure; but for men the effect appears to be more significant.
The latest report from the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) showed that more men are victims of sexual assault in the military than women, but that men are less likely to come forward and report. The claim is supported by the March GAO report that estimated at most only 13 percent of males reported their assaults, which is significantly lower than the percentage of females who report.
One of the biggest obstacles working against efforts to increase reporting from men, as it is with women, is the high level of retaliation by peers and superiors. Retaliation comes in many forms, such as continued harassment, being socially ostracized or adverse personnel actions like blocking a promotion. Retaliation compounds the injustice and personal betrayal survivors experience and has been a lasting concern among survivors, advocates and those of us in Congress fighting to institute reform. The SAPRO report acknowledges the high levels of retaliation, and in May a report conducted by Human Rights Watch drew similar conclusions and made the problem real by sharing candid stories from servicemembers who experienced backlash firsthand.
Much work that needs to be done. The status quo is simply unacceptable.
Congress, in its oversight capacity, has the ability and responsibility to force DOD to confront uncomfortable issues, like male victimization and retaliation. For years we have worked across the aisle to make significant changes to the military justice system and culture that allow these crimes to occur at such an alarming rate. Building on that work, the annual defense bill passed by the House last month contained our Support Uniformed Patriots; Prevent Offenses and Restore Trust Act (SUPPORT Act).
The SUPPORT Act requires DOD to create a comprehensive strategy to prevent retaliation and protect those who experience it, and improve training for commanders. It also requires DOD to better train and educate servicemembers about the sexual assault of men; provide the medical and mental health needs specific to male survivors; and develop Department-wide metrics to better understand and address the issue. As appointees to the committee tasked with working out the differences between the House and Senate Defense bills, we will urge our colleagues to include these much-needed changes.
Aside from legislative fixes, a conversation needs to take place across the military, and the country, about how best to support men who have been assaulted. The month of June was Men's Health Month, an opportunity to encourage open dialogue about the physical and mental trauma that male survivors of sexual assault experience, and the treatment and resources available. That conversation must continue throughout the year.
The military needs a targeted approach to address sexual assault against men, but the goals remain the same for all survivors: prevent assaults, encourage reporting, provide effective services and reform the military justice system that too often fails those who have been sexually assaulted.
Man or woman -- our servicemembers deserve better.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Mike Turner (R) of Ohio are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. They are co-authors of several recent pieces of legislation signed into law that address sexual assault in the military.
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