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How to Lie with Statistics

The Pentagon celebrated the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War this week by releasing its annual report on military sexual assault.


The numbers are disturbing. Reports of sexual assault have risen 8 percent in military as a whole. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they have shot up by 26 percent.


Yet to the Department of Defense this is good news.


As Kaye Whitley, director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), said at a press briefing at the Pentagon on March 17 (CSPAN), "The numbers have gone up and I reiterate: this does not mean sexual assaults have gone up, this means the number of reports have gone up, which we see as very positive as we're getting the victims in to get care."


Actually, no one can tell if an increase in reported sexual assaults means more assaults or more reports. To say otherwise is nonsense, especially given the fact that few than 10 percent or so of assaults are reported at all, as the DoD admits in its own report. (Report, p. 51)


The only accurate way to measure military sexual assault is to rely on veterans who are no longer afraid to report it, and those studies indicate no good news at all. Nearly a third of military women are raped, some 71 percent are sexually assaulted, and 90 percent are sexually harassed. Men, too, are assaulted in alarming numbers. Recent VA statistics show that 59,345 men have reported sexual abuse in the service.


Given that the purpose of SAPRO is to encourage sexual assault victims to report and seek help, it's worth taking a look through the report itself—a document as convoluted and jargon-ridden as one would expect from the DoD—to see what message it is really giving to victims.


Let's take a soldier called, say, Sarah. Sarah, who is 2O, has been raped by her 27-year-old sergeant after he pretended to be nice to her and plied her with drink. (The report reveals that 71 percent of victims are between 16 and 24 and in the lowest ranks, while 59.5 percent of assailants are between 20 and 34 and are in higher ranks. The use of alcohol in rape is high.)

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This essay appeared in the the Huffington Post.

Additional essays by Helen Benedict can be found at featurewell.com When you reach the site, just type "Helen Benedict" in the Advanced Search window. All essays are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission.