More U.S. service members said they faced retribution for filing sexual assault or harassment complaints last year than in 2016, according to an annual Pentagon report released April 30, as the Defense Department saw a growing number of sexual misconduct cases.
According to the report, there were 146 reports of retaliation last year, compared to 84 in 2016, and the number of sexual harassment complaints jumped by 16 percent. Nearly two-thirds of the harassment cases that were resolved were substantiated.
The increase in sexual misconduct cases came in a year that also saw the number of reported sexual assaults grow by about 10 percent. The Associated Press reported last week that there were 6,769 reports of sexual assaults in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, compared to 6,172 in 2016.
Pentagon officials say the increase in reporting reflects a broader confidence in the system and is a positive trend because sexual assault is a highly underreported crime. But it’s unclear if the larger jumps in harassment and retaliation complaints reflect a similar confidence or simply represent a growing problem.
Retribution is a key element in sexual assault cases.
“Fear of ostracism and retaliation remains a barrier to reporting sexual assault or filing a sexual harassment complaint,” the report said, adding that many women fear it will damage their reputations and haunt them for the length of their careers.
The bulk of the retaliation cases involved women who had filed sexual assault complaints, while less than 20 percent involved service members who filed sexual harassment complaints. In their complaints, many said they felt ostracized and faced cruelty or mistreatment.
Under the law, reprisal can involve a range of unjustified personnel actions, such as interfering with promotion, unreasonably downgrading someone’s evaluation or unfairly denying an award. But victims also complain of bullying, including on social media.
The Pentagon has worked to better define and understand the retaliation issue, using survey results last year to try to separate actual retribution from actions that may seem like revenge but may not be meant that way.
Of the 85 people charged with retaliation in cases that were closed during the last fiscal year — which includes some that began in previous years — only 31 were substantiated. And the department took action against just nine offenders. Disciplinary actions against 14 others are still being finalized.
The number of sexual harassment complaints filed by U.S. military members increased from 601 in 2016 to 696 in 2017. Most of the reports were filed by women, with men making up less than 20 percent of the complaints. And the vast majority involved young enlisted troops.
The report said there is a need for greater leadership on sexual harassment prevention and response programs. The Pentagon said it will set up a broad new department program that will more explicitly define social media harassment and beef up oversight.