To evaluate levels of sexual assault in the military, we need some points of comparison. First, consider sexual assault rates in the U.S. population as a whole. It’s virtually impossible to get apples-to-apples comparisons, as various studies use slightly different definitions of sexual assault and look at different timeframes. But as Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolff noted in a May 21 Foreign Policy article, the available evidence suggests that sexual assault rates in the civilian population are similar or higher than in the military. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 18.3 percent of civilian women had been raped at some point in their lifetime, while 27.2 percent had experienced “unwanted sexual contact.”

In the 12 month period preceding the study, the CDC report found that 1.1 percent of women reported experiencing a rape or attempted rape, and an additional 5.6 percent of women reported some form of “other sexual violence,” for an overall rape and sexual violence rate of 6.7 percent — slightly higher than the 6.1 percent of women reporting unwanted sexual contact in the 12 month period examined by the DOD study. And in the civilian population, as in the military, sexual assault rates are highest among the young: The CDC found that 79.6 percent of rape victims reported that they were first raped before they reached the age of 25.

It’s also useful to examine sexual assault rates in another kind of institution populated mainly by 17- to 24-year-olds: the civilian university. Here again, direct comparisons are impossible due to variations in the available studies, but the evidence again suggests that sexual assault rates in the military are, if anything, lower than in similar civilian settings. One major study published by the Justice Department in 2000 found that 3.5 percent of college women reported a rape or attempted rape, while an additional 15.5 percent of college women reported that they had been “sexually victimized” in some other way during the academic year in which they were surveyed.