“One in Three Military Women Raped.” Really??

Posted on January 14, 2013


It’s interesting, when confronted with what seems like an outrageous claim, to pull the string and follow it to where the statistics come from.  Sexual assault in the military is a terrible thing, damaging, unforgivable, under-reported, too rarely prosecuted.  Yes, it is all those things.  But one in three military women are raped during their service?  Really?  I find that hard to believe.

I served for over 20 years, mostly overseas, sometimes in war zones.  I went through basic training as a PFC before going to Officer Candidate School.  I have been on staff, I have been an Executive Officer, I have been a platoon leader and a commander.  I’ve been in a hole in the ground taking cover from missiles, and I’ve been in a Pentagon cubicle.   I have been privy to a lot of disciplinary issues, and sometimes have been the deciding authority on those issues.

I have also never knowingly served in the same unit with any woman who was a victim of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  Within my assigned units, no woman ever reported a rape to me.  No friend ever confided the experience of rape to me.  No one ever told me about the rape experience of their friend, co-worker, or subordinate.  The sum total of my direct personal experience with rape in the military is this:  two cases of false rape accusations in two different units that I was in (both accusers were caught in lies and recanted), and one rape/murder case in a neighboring unit, involving an estranged married couple.

So – was I totally oblivious to the one in three women around me who had been raped?  Was I just in miraculous units where that kind of thing never happened?  I don’t think so, so I decided to find out where this rather large statistic was coming from.

Here’s the article that first clued me in to the one in three statistic, citing a study called “Factors Associated With Women’s Risk of Rape in the Military Environment.”  The paper is 12 pages long; I read it.  The most important problem with the study is that the surveyed sample is not scientifically random, and is very small compared to the overall number of living female veterans.

Have a look:  among the nation’s estimated 1.5 million female veterans, only veterans who use the VA health care system were considered (please note that 87% of veterans are not – NOT enrolled in the VA health system), and of those, only women who served between 1961 – 2003, and of those, only 25% were randomly invited to be interviewed, and of those, only 25% self-selected by agreeing to participate… and that number – 558 non-random, non-representative, partly self-selected women –  is somehow assumed to be valid when extrapolated to cover the experiences of 1.5 million veterans and, presumably, 205,000 active-duty women.  This is not good science!

To confirm my impressions that the numbers are amiss, I need look no farther than the VA itself, which reports that that among women who are screened at VA health centers, only one in five report MST. And again, a word of caution:  that is also not a scientifically random or representative sample.

In the intelligence field, we sometimes see “circular reporting,” when folks start citing each other as “sources,” making it seem that there is a lot of reporting out there confirming some initial report, but in reality… when you start following the string… all of the citations lead back to one source, which may not have been very good in the first place.  Well, that’s what’s happening here.

I found the one in three figure cited in The Huffington Post.  I clicked the link and it took me to the US Department of Labor, which attributed that figure to “Foster & Vince, 2009.”  Ah, I thought, these are different authors; did a different study reach the same conclusion?  I hunted down Foster and Vince, and found their citation of that figure in their 136-page report, and that led me to a footnote, which directed me to… uh-oh… a CBS News Report, which cites the figure but does not explain where the number came from.  Again, this is not good science nor is it good research.  I have seen the same number, without any attribution, or simply “a 2003 study,” cited in The Guardian, NPR, Color Lines, Catholic Online, and a number of other publications.  Repeating it a lot doesn’t make it true, folks.

Now – don’t get me wrong.  The fact that the phenomenon exists at all is a huge disciplinary, morale, and readiness problem, a crime that must be dealt with.  All I am saying here is that women’s advocates do not do themselves any favors by repeating outlandish figures like this, because when the audience’s belief is strained, you just may lose your credibility – and their interest.