Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment in the Armed Forces

Sexual violence in the United Kingdom remains prevalent.  The Armed Forces are no exception, but particular and very powerful challenges arise when attempting to address sexual violence in that context. 

The extent of the problem

Sexual assaults and sexual harassment remain a serious problem for the Armed Forces.  The Review into Inappropriate Behaviour in the Armed Forces by Air Chief Marshal Michael Wigston in July 2019 (announced in response to media reports of an allegation of sexual assault on a 17 year old trainee, rushed through and very limited in scope) concluded that the Armed Forces suffered unacceptable levels of sexism, racism and bullying because it is led by a “pack of white middle-aged men” and concluded that  “an unacceptable level of inappropriate behaviour persists” in the forces.

This conclusion entirely reflects the experiences of the people that have contacted us.

Since 2015, the MoD has been collating and publishing statistics on all offences arising from the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (SOA 03) and historic sexual offences that are dealt with wholly within the Service Justice System (SJS).

When considering the MoD sexual offences bulletin as a barometer of the extent of the problem of sexual offending within the armed forces, two important qualifications need to be noted:

  1. The statistics do not include offences involving the Armed Forces that are dealt with within the civilian system. This means the scale of sexual offending is likely to be significantly higher than these statistics indicate; and 
  2. The figures do not include the large number of important sexual offences that are not found in the Sexual Offences Act 2003: such offences include the offences of creating or possessing indecent images of children, possession of extreme pornographic images, ‘revenge porn’ offences, sexual communications with a child and criminal harassment offences. 

The published figures will therefore not accurately reflect the true scale of sexual offending in the armed forces.  The Centre for Military Justice is calling for these additional sexual offences to be collated and published in the MoD sexual offences bulletin urgently.

However, some useful information can be drawn from the statistics.

  • It appears, from the statistics that are available, that some matters that start out as an allegation of sexual assault are being reduced to a lesser charge to enable them to be dealt with by a Commanding Officer and not the Director of Service Prosecutions (because an offence under the SOA 03 cannot be dealt with summarily, by a Commanding Officer). 

For example, an allegation of sexual assault (which a Commanding Officer may no longer deal with him/herself as of April 2018) may be reduced to a ‘battery’ (which a Commanding Officer may deal with).  This is clearly happening because the MoD bulletins that contain the sexual offences statistics specifically confirm that investigations that were reported as sexual offences but then reclassified to a non-sexual offence are not included. Self-evidently that caveat would not be necessary if it were not happening. 

  • The overwhelming number of suspects are male. The vast majority of victims are female.
  • The Royal Military Police is investigating significant numbers of rape cases. The number has increased year on year.
  • The vast majority of sexual offences are investigated by the Service Police in the UK, not abroad. This is important because the strongest argument that favours the need to retain a Service Police force for the armed forces at all is so that it can be taken on overseas operations when service people deploy. But this evidence shows that they are investigating offences in the UK, far more than offences abroad. It is not at all clear why.
  • Of the 48 rape cases that got to court martial in 2017, just 2 resulted in conviction. This is a conviction rate of 4%. 
  • In 2018, the number of rape cases that got to court martial fell dramatically, to around ten, resulting in just 3 convictions.  
  • In 2019, the number of rape cases that got to court martial was 15, resulting in just 3 convictions.
  • In 2021, the number of rape cases that got to court martial was 25, resulting in 6 convictions.
  • The ‘contested’ conviction rape in the civilian justice system, itself subject to enormous scrutiny and criticism at present (and which was the subject of litigation brought by the End Violence Against Women campaign and Centre for Women’s Justice), is nonetheless significantly higher than this. The MoD itself accepts that the contested conviction rate in the civilian justice system is significantly higher than in the service justice system.

These figures indicate that there is something very badly wrong with the way in which the armed forces investigate and prosecute sexual crime. The source of the problem is likely to be manifold: women are already a very significant minority in an environment where sexual harassment continues and is a serious and pressing problem – this creates an environment where attitudes towards women and their bodies can become at best disrespectful and at worst predatory. Such attitudes may be reflected in unsympathetic attitudes on court martial boards. Recent reports concerning jury approaches to rape cases in the civilian system have cast doubt on the ability of juries to deliver access to justice for rape victims – but the figures for court martial juries are worse.  

The Army’s own 2018 Sexual Harassment Survey recorded that ‘targeted sexualised behaviours’ that had caused respondents to feel particularly upset had increased since the last survey in 2015, for women (amounting to 18% of respondents). Such behaviours ranged from unwelcome comments, sexual touching, trying to speak about sexual matters, to sexual assaults: 12% of the women who responded said they had been victim of intentional sexual touching; 7% of attempted sexual assault; 5% of serious sexual assault; and most shocking of all, 3% reported being the victim of rape.

In 2022 an updated version of the survey was published.

There had been an observable increase in the reporting of targeted sexualised behaviours, behaviours that include coercive sexual favours and assault. Especially shocking was the proportion of service personnel saying they had suffered a ‘particularly upsetting experience’, which has significantly increased since 2018.

In 2018, 15% of service women reported a particularly upsetting experience (already an increase from the previous survey in 2015). But in 2022, 35% of servicewomen reported a particularly upsetting experience in the previous 12 months.  The figure for men is 13% (up from 2% from the last survey), also a huge increase.

The reason for this is unlikely to be increased confidence in reporting because, as the survey shows, those people are not in fact reporting these experiences, they are just disclosing them in confidence to an anonymous survey. The figures may be a reflection of an increasing unwillingness on the part of service personnel to put up with behaviours that they have previously tolerated (though see below, in relation to ‘generalised’ sexual behaviours which slightly contradicts this theory). An alternative explanation of course is that things are getting worse, not better.

Lots of the behaviours categorised as a ‘particularly upsetting experience’ would actually constitute a criminal offence: such as sending unwanted sexually explicit material; revenge porn offences; and sexual assaults, ranging from unwanted sexual touching to rape.

The proportion disclosing rape appear to have doubled from 2% of those that reported a particularly upsetting experience in 2018, to 4% in this survey.

The vast majority (65%) did not tell anyone about the upsetting experience – help seeking from official Army channels such as welfare, the helplines, the unit’s equality & diversity staff, or the padres was described as ‘minimal’.

Very few formally reported their experiences. The survey notes, ‘there still seem to be significant barriers to reporting sexual harassment’ including ‘the perceived negative repercussions of making a complaint’.

Reasons for not reporting included that the person did not think anything would be done about it, did not know what to do or feared a negative impact such as being labelled a troublemaker.

In those rare cases where they did formally report, they were dissatisfied with the time taken to investigate it, and dissatisfied with the outcome. A third that had reported described negative outcomes.

In a quarter of cases, the upsetting behaviours lasted for 2 months or more.

In 77% of ‘particularly upsetting behaviours’ the perpetrator was male.

It is notable that the burden of experiencing the upsetting behaviours appears to fall disproportionately on Other Ranks (ORs) as compared to Officers.

Generalised sexualised behaviours remain a common experience in the Army, though people are less likely to find them offensive than they were in 2018. Women however are more likely to find these behaviours offensive than men. In quite a striking conclusion, given all the work that has gone on in recent years to tackle unacceptable behaviours, the authors assume this level of tolerance is due to personnel being increasingly accepting the behaviours as ‘banter’, or resigning themselves to it being ‘just the way it is’. If the Wigston and Gray and reports were to have had the impacts hoped for, you might have expected acceptance of this kind of behaviour to reduce, not go up.

In terms of efforts made to try and prevent sexual harassment, respondents were largely positive about how the Army approaches this. However the above data appears to show that improved ‘command climates’ are not having the hoped-for change on the ground.

Our blog on the latest sexual harassment survey can be accessed here:

The Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces has highlighted some of these issues in her annual reports for the past five years.  Female service personnel are still unacceptably over-represented in the complaints system. In the 2019 report, the Ombudsman recorded that they account for 23% of complaints but make up just 11% of the Armed Forces population. This is a rise of 3% from the previous year. More alarming is the nature of the complaints being made by women. Bullying, harassment and discrimination constituted around 39% of complaints from women in her 2019 report. The Ombudsman has also been consistently concerned about continued reports from personnel that they have been discouraged from complaining by service complaint handlers, or advised that doing so could harm their careers. In her last report, the Ombudsman did not publish the proportion of female complainants complaining of bullying, harassment or discrimination complaints but has confirmed to CMJ that the figures remain disproportionate. 

The Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Surveys in recent years (AFCAS) also show the real impact on soldiers – with 12% reporting experiencing bullying, harassment or discrimination in the preceding 12 months for AFCAS 2020 (an increase from the previous year). For women, the figure was 20% in 2020. More than 90% of Service Personnel that describe having been subjected to bullying, harassment or discrimination do not try to make a formal complaint at all. The most common reasons given for not complaining were feeling that “nothing would be done” (60% in 2020) and that complaining would adversely affect their career (52% in 2020). The surveys also indicate limited knowledge of the complaints system.

Finally, if criminal proceedings are brought following an allegation of sexual assault, following the conclusion of those proceedings, the CMJ has received evidence that some survivors are being further penalised by being forced to undergo intrusive internal investigations led by their Commanding Officer to determine if the Service Test has been breached.  

The Centre for Military Justice is calling for:

  • All serious offences in the UK including rape and sexual assault to be investigated by the civilian police and not the Service Police, prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service and not the Service Prosecution Authority and sent to trial at Crown Court and not court martial;
  • Any decision to downgrade an allegation of sexual assault from an indictable (equivalent) offence to a summary offence (which a Commanding Officer may deal with him/herself) be subject to independent review by the CPS;
  • That the sexual offences of creating or possessing indecent images of children, possession of extreme pornographic images, revenge porn offences, and sexual communications with a child to be added to the MoD published annual bulletin of sexual offences in the Service Justice System;
  • For commanding officers to receive specialist training and support on how best to assist service personnel that have reported being the victim of a sexual offence and, in particular, to be informed that the presumption must always be that a person who has reported an offence of this nature should not later be made the subject of AGAI or disciplinary action, whatever the outcome of the criminal allegation of sexual assault. 
  • For the systemic ignorance on the part of COs of the relevant Defence Instruction Notice on how to support survivors of sexual assaults to be addressed. In numerous cases the CMJ is supporting women that have reported sexual assault and who, like their COs, were entirely ignorant of the DIN and how it may have provided them with some of the support they needed (including the application of a marker to their/their assailant’s service file to ensure they are not posted to the same place in the future, their right to request compassionate leave and their right to seek a transfer). The DIN can be accessed here, at the back of JSP 839 (at Annex B):

Overall, it is clear that:

  • Service women, already a minority, are being disproportionately affected by sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Armed Forces
  • The complaints system is not helping them
  • The service justice system is not giving them justice
  • They risk being further traumatised by internal investigations following the end of the criminal proceedings
  • Commanding Officer are often ignorant of the relevant DIN (see above)
  • Survivors need help.

If you have been affected by any of these issues and would like to speak to us in confidence, please do call.

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