WASHINGTON - More than half of the women enrolled at the nation's three military academies say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and more than one in 10 have been sexually assaulted, according to a report released yesterday.
The figures emerged from a survey of students conducted by the Defense Department's inspector general last spring at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.
It's the first time the inspector general has assessed sexual behavior and the ethical climate at the three service academies at one time. The survey is to be the first of five annual assessments.
One expert on women in the military said the figures are not out of bounds for what one might expect on any college campus, but the inspector general said the academies must do better.
"We hold our cadets to a higher standard than civil society," Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz said at a Pentagon briefing yesterday. "Our bar is way higher than that."
The survey puts the U.S. Naval Academy in the dimmest light of the three academies, with both male and female midshipmen coming in last for reporting harassment and assault, first for saying personal "loyalties" among midshipmen inhibit reporting of harassment and giving their superiors low marks for setting a proper tone.
Schmitz said the survey identifies several areas that need improvement, not least the "vexing challenge of underreporting" of sexual assault. About two-thirds of assaults among women and three-quarters of sexual assaults on men went unreported, the survey found.
Change in policy
As part of an effort to better that record, the Defense Department yesterday also announced a new policy allowing midshipmen and cadets to report sexual assault to authorities in confidence, without automatically triggering a full investigation.
"This is a big change," said Undersecretary of Defense David S. C. Chu, adding that the new policy is designed to give academy officials a clearer picture of the problem and to "foster greater trust among victims that their needs are our primary concerns."
The survey and policy change emerge after more than 10 years in which reports of sexual harassment and assault have made news both in the service academies and in uniformed ranks. Late last year, an inspector general's report browbeat Air Force Academy leadership for failing to acknowledge and pursue reports of sexual assaults against female cadets. In 2003, nearly 150 women stepped forward with reports that they had been assaulted by fellow cadets between 1993 and 2003.
When told the figure on sexual harassment in the survey released yesterday, retired Navy Capt. Lory F. Manning, who heads the Women in Military Project at the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington, said "it surprises me that it's not higher," especially among young people.
"Ask any group of 18- to 22-year-old women anywhere, and you'd find they'd been sexually harassed," said Manning. "I don't know any woman who hasn't been sexually harassed at some point in her life."
The figure of nearly 14 percent of women experiencing sexual assault is "way too high," Manning said, but about on par with numbers compiled by the Veterans Administration for women assaulted at some point during their military service.
She said that "leadership is everything in something like this" but that the sheer number of women in an institution can also contribute to a tone where harassment and assault are more likely. Things seem to shift when women make up 25 percent of a population or more.
Of each academy's roughly 4,200 students, between 600 and 700 are women. The three service academies first admitted women in 1976.
Respondents told the inspector general's surveyers about 302 sexual assaults, only a third of which had been reported either to academy authorities, counselors or clergy. Men at the academies told about 54 such episodes, only a quarter of which had been reported.
In the survey, the women told about 64 incidents in which an offender had intercourse with them against their will or without consent. There were 176 incidents in which female cadets' and midshipmen's "private parts" were "touched, stroked or fondled" without their consent, and 127 incidents in which someone physically attempted to have sex with them but was not successful.
Freshmen and sophomore women were most vulnerable; assaults occurred most often in dormitories or barracks, by fellow cadets and midshipmen.
Along with accounts of specific infractions, the survey attempted to capture a sense of the ethical culture in each institution, with questions about how the students perceived the institutions' key values and standards of "good order and discipline."
Vice Admiral Rodney Rempt, the Naval Academy superintendent, said, "We were a little disappointed in the results we see here," particularly the leaders' poor showing.