Lies, Damned Lies, and Military Sexual Assault Statistics
Statistics inspire confidence and can lend an air of legitimacy to anecdotal evidence. But as the saying goes, torture the numbers and they’ll confess to anything.
Torturing the numbers is something Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict knows a little something about. She’s got the military sexual assault data on the rack and she’s ratcheting up the tension as high as she can to promote her new book on the abuse of female soldiers.
Consider these statistics published by Benedict in a recent Huffington Post piece:
Nearly a third of military women are raped, some 71 percent are sexually assaulted, and 90 percent are sexually harassed.
Benedict’s piece is entitled, “The Pentagon’s Annual Report on Sexual Assualt [sic] in the Military, or, How to Lie with Statistics,” and how to lie with statistics is exactly what she demonstrates.
The sexual assault figure is the most preposterous, and spelling assault wrong doesn’t get her off the hook. It is an outright lie that some 71 percent of military women are sexually assaulted.
The statistic comes from a study of PTSD sufferers published in Military Medicine in May 2004. The research sample was not, as Benedict would have you believe, culled from a general pool of female veterans or current servicewomen. Instead, participants were selected from “an eligible pool of 4,918 representatively sampled veterans seeking VA disability benefits for PTSD.”
Helen Benedict is fully aware of the proper context for this statistic on sexual assault. In a 2007 Salon essay she noted that the study was limited to veterans “who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder,” but since then she has repeatedly cited the statistic out of context. She mentioned it in a Huffington Post interview this month, a recent BBC News piece called Women at War Face Sexual Violence, and a 2008 essay in which she suggests that soldiers rape because Bush lied to justify the illegal occupation of Iraq.
The data Benedict cites on military rape and sexual harassment are also misleading.
Nearly a third of military women are raped? No. While not as glaring as Benedict’s sexual assault deception, this is, at best, an inaccurate representation of military rape data published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2003. Researchers found that 30 percent of a self-selected sample of 558 female veterans reported experiencing one or more rapes or attempted rapes during their military service. The study was limited to women who served between 1961 and 1997, and does not take into account the impact of numerous sexual assault awareness and prevention programs instituted in the last 12 years. And because the study relies on self-reporting of retrospective data, recall bias is of some concern.
I don’t expect Helen Benedict to dissect every flaw each time she cites the study, but how about something like this:
A 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military.
That quote comes from The Private War of Women Soldiers, an article by none other than Helen Benedict. Yet again, we see that she can indeed place numbers in their proper context when the mood strikes.
The 2003 article from which Benedict gleaned her military rape statistic also indicates that 79 percent of women surveyed recalled being sexually harassed in the military. Benedict frequently cites the rape research in that article, but rejected the companion stat that places sexual harassment at 79 percent in favor of the 90 percent figure reported in a 1995 Archives of Family Medicine study.
Again, Benedict shows a reckless disregard for the truth. In addition to obvious flaws such as the age of the study and recall bias of the participants, Benedict’s readers might find it relevant that the research included rape and attempted rape as types of sexual harassment. But in her Salon article, for which she won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict wrote that the 90 percent figure included “anything from being pressured for sex to being relentlessly teased and stared at.” It should also be noted that the article significantly misquoted one of the subjects, and required several corrections.
What motive could Helen Benedict possibly have for inflating rape and sexual assault statistics at the expense of her reputation and credibility? The more shocking the statistics, the more media coverage Benedict gets for her book. And the more books she sells, the more attention she gets for her anti-war, anti-military agenda. For Benedict, outrageous and dated statistics about military rape are an opportunity to smear American troops and criticize the war.
Do the reasons soldiers rape have anything to do with the nature of the wars we are waging today, particularly in Iraq?
Robert Jay Lifton, a professor of psychiatry who studies war crimes, theorizes that soldiers are particularly prone to commit atrocities in a war of brutal occupation, where the enemy is civilian resistance, the command sanctions torture, and the war is justified by distorted reasoning and obvious lies.
Thus, many American troops in Iraq have deliberately shot children, raped civilian women and teenagers, tortured prisoners of war, and abused their own comrades because they see no moral justification for the war, and are reduced to nothing but self-loathing, anger, fear and hatred.
She follows with a list of recommended reforms that would presumably stop so “many” troops from committing atrocities. Ending the war in Iraq is “last – but far from least.”
Let me make clear that I find rape an inexcusable atrocity; even one sexual assault is one too many. I fully believe that sexual assault and rape are underreported in both civilian and military life, and understand that reliable data on sex crimes can be elusive. But that doesn’t excuse Helen Benedict’s agenda-driven falsehoods and emotionally manipulative sophistry.
Benedict forces us to spend time disentangling fact from fiction instead of addressing how we can reduce sexual assault. And each time she trots out methodologically questionable rape data and self-serving hyperbole, she undermines the credibility of the publications that carry her writing and the writers who trust her intellectual honesty enough to quote her rape prevalence statistics. Helen Benedict has dragged valid scholarship into a twisted game of telephone, purposefully garbling data into an almost unrecognizable mutation of what the researchers intended.
When assault statistics are manipulated and exaggerated for use as a bludgeon against the American military, actual experiences of rape are trivialized. It sends the message that smearing the troops as rapists is more important than addressing the very real occurrence of rape. At the same time, it creates what may be overblown fear among female soldiers and potential enlistees. We know that there are too many rapes in the military – too many rapes, period – and torturing the numbers harms both women and men in uniform.
Feminists have been accused for years of lying about rape – perhaps it’s time to disown Helen Benedict before she cries wolf again.
To read the studies referenced by Helen Benedict, see:
Archives of Family Medicine. 1995;4(5):411-418
American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 2003;43(3):262-273
Military Medicine. 2004;169(5):392-395