Huge increase in ‘targeted’ sexualised behaviours in the Army

08th Apr 2022

The Ministry of Defence has just published the results of its three-yearly survey that measures the experiences of regular and full-time reservists in the Army over the preceding 12 months. The last Army Sexual Harassment Survey was published in 2018.

The first thing to note is that the authors of the survey are clear that the data can be considered representative for service men and service women. What this means is, as the authors  state, ‘we can be 95% confident that if we surveyed the entire population, as opposed to just a sample, the findings would be the same.’  The experiences disclosed by the respondents reflect the experiences of the wider Army population.

Key findings

Targeted Sexualised Behaviours

There has been an observable increase in the reporting of targeted sexualised behaviours, behaviours that include coercive sexual favours and assault.

Especially shocking is 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 this year, 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 sexual behaviours

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.

Where are the recommendations?

The report makes no recommendations. The last report included extensive recommendations.  No explanation for this omission is offered. It appears that a decision has been made not to invite the authors to make recommendations, or else to redact them from the report. Perhaps the Army has had enough of outside bodies telling it what it needs to do. Publishing recommendations gives the public another yardstick with which to measure the Army’s failure to address the problem this survey shows it clearly still has with women.


The survey shows that a very large proportion of women – and an increasing proportion of men – have to put up with nasty targeted sexualised behaviour, including criminal sexual offences.

There were approximately 112,000 regular & full time reservists serving over this period. If, as the authors suggest, you can assume this figure would apply Army-wide, that means that nearly 16,800 people (15%) in the Army suffered ‘particularly upsetting experiences’ in a single year. The impact of this, as the survey shows, can have very negative effects on the workforce – and devastating effects on individual lives.

The MoD’s own evidence to the Defence Inquiry on Women last year admitted to the serious problems posed by its ‘white male prototype’ that is so often resentful, stubborn and hostile to change. After all the noise and recommendations and assurances of the last few years, it seems that, inside units throughout the British Army, behaviours often remain wholly unacceptable and the systems that are supposed to be in place to address them are just not working.  Ensuring the Army can no longer mark its own homework when it comes to dealing with serious sexual harassment complaints would a good place to start – this has been repeatedly recommended since 2019 and repeatedly rejected.  If those serious complaints were handled independently maybe more people would come forward to get help, challenge unacceptable behaviours and stop the perpetrators.  This the survey shows that there is a lot more to do to stop these kinds of behaviours happening in the first place and a very long way to go yet.

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