Sam’s story – sexual assault in the RAF

15th Apr 2023

There has been a good deal of coverage of Sam’s case in the press this week.


The RAF is a “boys’ club” where sexual harassment, misogyny and homophobia are rife, says a female ex-corporal who was sexually assaulted while serving.

Sam, not her real name, says she suffered “vile misogyny, homophobia and sexual abuse” while in the force.

She left after being sexually assaulted by a male colleague who was then acquitted by a military court and allowed to continue serving.

The RAF said “historic cases like this” had led to a “zero-tolerance policy”.

Last year an employment tribunal ruled Sam had suffered sexual harassment.

It also found there was “no factual dispute that the sexual assault took place”.

Sam joined the RAF aged 19 as an aircraft technician, where she was one of very few women in the team.

In her first interview, she told the BBC she had enjoyed her job, and work assessment reports had praised her as outstanding.

But she says she had to live with appalling sexism. Women were regularly referred to using offensive language and were the subject of sexist jokes. She recalls two incidents in which men exposed themselves in front of her.

She was also in a minority as a lesbian woman. She says that didn’t stop male colleagues “preying on her” and saying they could “turn” her – persuade her to become heterosexual.

Sam says she tried to endure the so-called banter but adds, “I understood why a lot of women didn’t stay in the forces, because it’s a tough crowd to be in.”

It proved even tougher when she became the victim of a sexual assault, while she was asleep.

Sam says she was “hung out to dry” when she reported the assault in the summer of 2018, after being deployed to the Greek island of Crete.

She’d been on a night out off-base with colleagues when she was sexually assaulted by a male corporal in a hotel.

She says she felt “massive pressure to brush it under the carpet”.

Lacked forensic tests

When she reported the incident back at base the following day, she says some of her superiors had appeared more concerned by the fact Sam and her colleagues had broken a curfew, than for her welfare.

“I had just found the courage to tell someone and I was getting into trouble. There was no sympathy, empathy or advice on what would happen next.”

Hours passed before she was interviewed by two members of the RAF Police – who were both male.

They lacked the equipment to conduct proper forensic tests and had to ask a nearby US military base for assistance.

In 2019, the assault went to a military court, but the male suspect was acquitted – despite the court acknowledging failings with the investigation. He was allowed to continue serving. Sam says the verdict left her “absolutely furious”.

“He just got away with it. It blows my mind.”

She then lodged a service complaint – a workplace grievance procedure for the armed forces – which took three years to complete.

The RAF eventually concluded Sam had been subjected to behaviour that was “predatory in nature (including) unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which violated (her) dignity and created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment – which amounted to a degree of sexual harassment that was extremely serious”

Sam says she suffered anxiety and serious depression when she returned to the UK.

Several requests by her to be stationed nearer her partner and family were turned down.

In 2021 she was medically discharged and left the service.

In December last year she won her case for sexual harassment at an employment tribunal, though a separate claim of sexual discrimination was not upheld.

The RAF has appealed against the decision. It argues the assault happened off-base and the service personnel involved had broken a curfew.

In a statement, an RAF spokesperson said “historic cases like this have led to the introduction of a zero-tolerance policy to send a clear message that unacceptable sexual behaviour will not be tolerated”.

The RAF added that there were now a range of measures, including the creation of a Defence Serious Crimes Unit, to investigate such allegations.

But lawyer Emma Norton, who represented Sam, said her case was “sadly typical of women” in the armed forces contacting her for help.

“They all report a sexualised culture, disrespect for women, victim-blaming, and a system completely incapable of supporting victims,” said Ms Norton, who runs the Centre for Military Justice, which offers independent legal advice to military personnel.

Sam says she saw no evidence of a change in culture during her 10-year career in the RAF. She points to recent cases of sexual harassment in the RAF Red Arrows display team.

“I feel sorry for any young girl joining, with men trying it on and sexually harassing them,” she says. “It happened all the time.”

The Times:

Corporal who quit RAF after sex attack warns female recruits

Beware the boys’ club, says former technician

Emma Norton, the lawyer representing Sam, said the RAF’s decision to appeal against the judgement added “insult to injury” following the failures of the original investigation. She said the RAF’s claim of a zero-tolerance approach was “a thoughtless line they have been trotting out for years”.

“It’s small comfort for women like Sam whose careers have been brought to an end due to the forces’ failure to support them after reporting sexual assault,” said Norton, director of a legal campaign group called the Centre for Military Justice. “Sam’s own line manager told her they did not see what the problem was. The assault had happened overseas and the assailant was now in a different unit.”

How can you help?

The Centre for Military Justice is a small but growing charity and we rely on generous donations to carry out our vital work. We know that not everyone has the means to help us financially, but for those that do, we can say that every single penny counts.

You can also help us by joining our mailing list, so that we can keep you updated about our work and so that when we have specific asks, like sharing a social media post, we can get in touch.

Donate as much or as little as you can to help

Support Us

Join our mailing list

Join the mailing list