A ‘boys club’ where women struggle to ‘fit in’: Sexual assault reports at military academies jumped by 32% last year, report says

United States Military Academy at West Point

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United States Military Academy at West Point
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  • Sexual assault was reported 149 times in the 2018-2019 academic year versus 117 incidents in the year prior. That’s a 32 percent jump.
  • In the same duration, unreported sexual misconduct jumped by 50 percent, going from 507 to 747 cases.
  • A Department of Defense report says students are reluctant to speak out due to a fear of “negative social, academic, and career impacts.”
  • Also, the “perceived costs of intervening are often higher for women” who are trying to “fit in” within a “stereotypical male culture,” the report notes.
  • A group called Protect our Defenders is pushing to change the chain of command and enable service members to report their experiences to an independent prosecutor rather than their commander.
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She was burrowed in her sleeping bag, she said, when the attack happened.

In the summer of 2016, a female was set up at an outdoor field training just feet away from other cadets. The unnamed woman testified that she was lying down in such a way that her sleeping bag entirely covered her head and she woke up to a fellow cadet, Jacob D. Whisenhunt, sexually assaulting her.

“She remained frozen in the fetal position during the entire assault,” the ruling said, according to the New York Times.

Whisenhunt’s lawyers described the encounter as “a series of escalating and consensual touchings” and “that both parties tried to avoid detection and even stopped and held their breaths after hearing a nearby noise,” according to the Times.

Whisenhunt was court-martialed and handed a sentence that included dismissal from the military and 21 years in prison. He served 25 months, before being let free.

Three judges on the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals determined in 2019 that the woman couldn’t have stayed quiet while being subjected to sexual violence. They wrote that it was hard to believe she “would not make any reflexive noise or movements upon being awakened, which would have alerted multiple others to his criminal activity,” further noting that there was no evidence indicating that Whisenhunt “took any steps, such as covering her mouth, to prevent an outcry,” the Times reported.

The panel also noted the fact that Whisenhunt left semen on the woman’s sleeping bag and didn’t try to remove it, providing them with “a fair and rational hypothesis other than guilt.”

With the rape conviction overturned, Whisenhunt was able to return to West Point in 2019, according to the Associated Press.

It’s unclear what the female cadet’s future holds, but a Department of Defense (DoD) report released Thursday proved that she is not alone. Sexual assault increased by 32% among cadets and midshipmen at military academies last year.

‘The problem continues to grow’

Unwanted sexual conduct was reported 149 times during the 2018-2019 academic year – up 32 percent from 117 claims in the 2017-2018 academic year, the report said.

Another more in-depth survey of sexual assault in the same time period showed that unreported sexual misconduct jumped by 50 percent, going from 507 cases in 2017-2018 to 747 incidents in 2018-2019, according to USA Today.

This data came from focus groups and on-site assessments at military, air force, and naval academies, the report said.

Retired Colonel Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the United States Air Force, said in a statement to Business Insider that the DoD report was not a surprise.

“This report is a reflection of what we already know,” Christensen, who presides over Protect Our Defenders, an organization working to end sexual assault and rape in the military, said. “The Pentagon has repeatedly failed to address the sexual assault crisis gripping its ranks and, as a result, the problem continues to grow.”

When sexual harassment is seen as ‘normal’

Students aged 17 to 24 run the highest risk because of “alcohol use” and “peer behavior,” the report said, noting: “Reporting a sexual assault is a unique and critical challenge at the academies, and sexual harassment experience remains high.”

Why? Because students stay quiet out of a fear of “negative social, academic, and career impacts,” the report said.

It also noted that students in focus groups pointed to a “stereotypical male culture” and a need for women to “fit in” to this “boy’s club.”

“Students often do not report sexual harassment due to the inability or unwillingness to recognize disrespectful experiences as ‘unacceptable,'” the report explained. “They also advised that sexually harassing behaviors are perceived as lacking severity or seen as ‘normal.'”

Potential “social repercussions” prevent students from asking for help, reporting incidents and even intervening, the report said, “especially when such situations are vague or lack overt cues.”

It added: “The perceived costs of intervening are often higher for women.”

Reporting sexual assaults causes concern about “ostracism and reputation damage,” according to the report. Students also dread being faced with “victim-blaming,” a too-lengthy reporting process and being forced to “re-live the trauma.”

Moving forward, the report identified ways to remove barriers to reporting.

“To motivate greater sexual assault reporting, the academies must counter-narratives and behavior that impede cadets and midshipmen from greater reporting and help-seeking,” it said. “In this effort, they will identify key student influencers to help counter-narratives that deter reporting and bystander intervention.”

Shaking up the chain of command

For his part, Christensen faulted military leadership for spending years focused on prevention “despite zero evidence that preventative measures are working.”

If anything, he added, it’s quite the opposite with “a dramatic increase in sexual assaults and harassment, not only affecting those who bravely serve in our military, but its next generation of leaders as well.”

Currently, service members report alleged assaults to their commanders who can then decide whether or not that case moves forward, CNN reported. The Pentagon has long resisted changing this chain of command.

Protect Our Defenders is pushing for the next President of the United States to allow soldiers to report any such crimes to independent prosecutors. So far, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang and other presidential hopefuls have signed on to the organization’s pledge. President Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, and Joe Walsh are the holdouts.

Read more:

Black and Hispanic service members more likely to face trial, but likelihood of conviction is nearly same for all troops

Disturbing new data show troops are still at high risk of sexual assault – despite years of efforts

Senator: The US military’s sexual assault problem is worse than people realize