Why the “Near-Doubling” of Sexual Assault Reporting at West Point Might Actually Be a Good Thing
by Scott Faith
I am not a United States Military Academy graduate, but as a father of two daughters, one of whom wants to go to West Point in a few years, I’ve recently been paying a lot of attention to what’s going on there. So when I read headlines like “West Point sees sexual assault reports nearly double,” it gets my attention.
Prior to the dramatic revelation of the double-digit increase in reporting, which was made in the Department of Defense’s “Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies” and reported in major news outlets across the country, most of what I saw emanating from West Point in terms of preventing sex-related crimes was encouraging. For example, I’m aware that the Academy has been putting a lot of effort into stamping out sexual assault and in encouraging and empowering victims to come forward. So I was as shocked as anyone to learn about the dramatic uptick in numbers.
But raw numbers never tell the whole story, so I put a little more thought into it. I talked to people who went there, and listened to people who are there now. I poked around a little bit on the Internet. And now I have a different perspective.
It is possible that despite an Academy-wide effort at education, prevention, and encouragement to report sexual assaults, West Point cadets suddenly got a whole lot more “rapey” since last year. But let me offer an alternate hypothesis: the uptick in reports is actually a good thing. I’ll say that again, more explicitly: the near-doubling of reports of sexual assaults at the United States Military Academy at West Point this year, as compared to last year, is a good thing.
Before you break out the pitchforks and torches and burn down the offices of The Havok Journal, allow me to explain.
If we accept the US Department of Justice’s estimation that only about 1/3 of sexual assaults are reported (and some sources say it’s 1/6), it’s quite possible that West Point’s recent numbers might indicate not an increase in incidents (which would be terrifying, given the level of prevention/education effort), but simply shows an increase in reporting (which would be a positive trend). If it is the latter, then it would appear that this might be a good news story—if there is ever any “good news” about sexual assaults—instead of a bad news one.
For purposes of this alternate hypothesis, I’m assuming that the Army, Naval, and Air Force Academies have roughly the same numbers of individuals from roughly the same demographics living in roughly similar conditions (although I’m told the living conditions for cadets at West Point are “rougher” than that of their Academy peers). I further assume that all three Academies think prevention of sexual assault is equally important. Given these assumptions, I think it would be reasonable to expect that the numbers of reported sexual assaults might be the same between all three Academies.
…but they’re not.
Army reported 50 incidents this year (vs. 26 a year ago). Navy came in second this year (insert obligatory Army/Navy football game joke here) with 33, and Air Force finished third (again, with the football jokes) at 29. If the real incidence of sexual assaults on each of the campuses is… I don’t know, 60 (it’s probably more), who is doing a better job of dealing with the problem?
At first glance the answer would appear to be “Air Force.” After all, they only reported 29 incidents. So their programs and policies must be the best, right?
Well, not so fast there, Zoomies. As it turns out, the Air Force Academy discovered, after an internal investigation, that their program was significantly “mismanaged,” particularly when it came to “victim advocacy and assistance,” and that the now-fired program manager was “derelict in the performance of [her] duties.” Whatever the problems were there they must have been major, because the former program director was reportedly “escorted from her office… and told her personal belongings would be mailed to her.”
Anyway, the purpose of the above vignette about Air Force is not to embarrass that Academy. As far as I can tell, they identified, self-reported, thoroughly investigated, and took appropriate action to remedy a situation that could have happened at any school. My purpose is instead to show that there might be other reasons for Air Force’s relatively low numbers, the main one being a possible lack of trust and confidence in the system on the part of victims. If that is the case, I’m sure Air Force already has a plan to get it sorted out. But it may well indeed have played a part in the past year’s reporting numbers.
I imagine that reporting sexual assaults is hard for any victims, under any circumstances. And I have to believe that the difficulty is compounded by the close living conditions inherent in the Academies and by the fact that sexual assaults are sometimes accompanied by collateral misconduct (e.g. fraternization, sex in the barracks, breaking curfew, or underage drinking) on the part of the victim; issues which are either minor violations or non-existent rules at civilian schools but carry severe sanctions at the Academies. Given this, I think it’s logical to assume that the more confident that victims are in the system, the more likely it will be that they will come forward. If that hypothesis holds true, West Point’s numbers look a lot less scary.