This Is What It Looks Like When Women Come Out of the Shadows

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It could be easy to get discouraged reading about the Pentagon survey Thursday that found reports of sexual assault in the American military are on the rise. But a closer look at the numbers gives reason for optimism: There are more reports of assault because more women are reporting those assaults rather than staying silent.

“This is a remarkable change in terms of victims being willing to talk to people in the military about what happened to them,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the key advocates of military sexual assault reform in Washington, said Thursday afternoon at a news conference with fellow lawmakers.

Reported assaults hit 5,983 in the 2014 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 8% from last year and up from 3,604 in 2012. But the proportion of service members who said they were assaulted decreased by roughly 27%. Among those who were assaulted, one in four reported it, a sharp increase from one in 10 in 2012.

MORE: The sexual assault crisis on America’s campuses

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S. because of the stigma survivors face. Raising the rates of reporting, therefore, is a key goal as reformers look to hold perpetrators accountable and reduce the number of assaults. That was true for Congress when it passed a number of reforms to the military’s handling of sexual assault over the last several months. And the rise in reports, along with promising responses from victims about being satisfied by the way their cases were handled, indicates a shift in culture that is moving in the right direction.

The military isn’t the only institution that has seen an increased culture of reporting: higher education is moving in this direction, too. Earlier this year, a government report showed that the number of sex crimes reported by colleges themselves rose 52 percent between 2001 and 2011, with a particularly sharp rise in 2010 and 2011.

MORE: Here’s the real reason college sex reports are rising

The military report was not all good news. Reports of retaliation remained high, especially among peers, raising questions about how much better the broader culture in the military really is.

But at a moment when awareness of violence against women has hit a high water mark after highly publicized incidents on campuses, in the military, in professional sports and in Hollywood, Thursday’s news holds out promise that victims will continue to feel more empowered to come out of the shadows across the country.

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