Sex Survey Scolding Unfair to Military Service Academies

Late in 2005, the Department of Defense released the results of a survey questioning men and women at the service academies about sexual harassment and assault. You would never know, judging from news stories about the survey, that reports of sexual harassment at the military academies have gone down.

Comparing the 124-page "Sexual Harassment and Assault Survey" (SASA 2005) and another one done by the Government Accountability Office in the 1990s shows a downward trend in sexual harassment and “sexist behaviors” at the academies.

The percentage of survey respondents reporting some form of sexual harassment — most of them minor — dropped from 80% to 62% at West Point, 70% to 59% at the Naval Academy (USNA), and 78% to 49% at the Air Force Academy (AFA). Suggestive jokes and rudeness are annoying, but "sexist behaviors" occur at rates similar to or lower than those at civilian colleges.

Reports of more serious abuse of women at the military academies have been greatly exaggerated. Even one case of assault is too many, but this survey did not chronicle "substantiated" cases. Looking closer at figures in the SASA 2005, we find that 6% of women at the Military Academy (USMA), 5% of women at the USNA, and 4% of women at the AFA reported some form of sexual assault, defined most often as "unwanted touching of private parts."

West Point was tagged with the largest figure (6%) for sexual assault, but perspective is in order. The percentage resulted from anonymous reports from only seven more women than the number who anonymously reported assaults at the Air Force Academy.

Questions Not Asked

In 2004, Defense Department Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz conducted an extensive survey at the academies, which found that fraudulent complaints are perceived as a problem by an average of 73% of women at the Air Force Academy, West Point, and Annapolis. The comparable average percentage for men at all three academies was 72%. Figures of that size indicate a problem worthy of further investigation. But in the SASA 2005 report there were no questions about fraudulent complaints. The omission was intentional.

The 2005 survey also omitted any questions about "complaints that standards have been lowered," even though this was identified by the GAO in 1991 and 1994 as the second most prominent type of sexual harassment at the academies. That issue didn’t fit the template. In fact, the survey seemed to omit any mention of men’s concerns at all — unless they complained about sexual harassment or assault. Concerns about differing standards, false accusations and a lack of legal support when accusations are filed simply don’t count.

According to the report, at the USMA 95% of female cadets who did not report incidents of sexual harassment said they "believed they could handle the situation themselves." At the USNA, the figure was 100%. But at the AFA, the figure was only 70%. This suggests that women at West Point and the USNA know how to deal with guys who get out of line, but fewer AFA women feel prepared to do so. Instead, they turn to professionals in the "victim-advocate" service provider industry.

At all three institutions, the percentages of men and women who said they knew how to report sexual misconduct were between 90% and 99%. Critics still complain as if the huge array of support services simply does not exist. This happens repeatedly because the victim-advocate service-provider industry is a special interest like all others. Prizes being sought include contracts for multi-year Defense Department projects, polls and surveys, high-profile women’s conferences and seminars, prestigious offices, and career opportunities for women’s studies majors schooled in male-bashing attitudes.

It is time for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to stop the endless cycle of negative reports about sexual harassment. Sexual misconduct must be discouraged, and academy instructors should teach discipline and high moral standards. But even if the service academies produced only saints, the professional victim advocates would not be satisfied.