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Exclusive: 1 in 5 Air Force women victim of sexual assault, survey finds

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The military definition of sexual assault includes a range of behaviors, including “sexual contact without consent.” Of the 18.9 percent of female airmen who reported having been assaulted, 58 percent said that they had been raped and 20 percent said they had been sodomized, which the military defines as nonconsensual oral or anal sex.

Two percent of men surveyed reported having been sexually assaulted since joining the military.

The Pentagon has long wrestled with sexual assault in its ranks and at the military academies. Yet it has had no clear picture of the pervasiveness of the crime. Defense officials routinely release figures showing the annual rate of official sexual assault reports. When those figures go up – as they did between 2009 and 2010 when there was a 10 percent spike in reports, for example – officials are often quick to respond that those figures “do not necessarily” represent an increase in incidents. It may simply mean, for example, that victims feel more comfortable reporting them.

The Air Force survey, in which 18,834 male and female airmen were interviewed between July and August 2010, had a response rate of nearly 19 percent and is expected to serve as a new baseline for tracking the crime. The survey, conducted by Gallup, will likely be repeated every 18 to 24 months, says Ms. Bradley.

Officials acknowledge that they had some reservations about embarking on the survey, largely because of what they might discover. “You want to know what’s wrong,” Bradley says. “But it’s hard to know what’s wrong.”

'Blue on blue' crimes

Along with the troubling knowledge that sexual assault is pervasive in the ranks, defense officials learned that in the vast majority of the assaults against women – more than 80 percent – the perpetrators are fellow US servicemembers. “The majority are blue-on-blue – airmen-on-airmen – for women,” Bradley says. “Of course we’re not happy about it.”

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