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Explicit questions in survey on sexual assault draw complaints from military service members

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WASHINGTON — Shocked and offended by explicit questions, some in the U.S. military are complaining about a sexual-assault survey that hundreds of thousands have been asked to complete.

The survey is conducted every two years. But this year's version, developed by the Rand Corp., is unusually detailed, including graphically personal questions on sexual acts.

Some military members told The Associated Press that they were surprised and upset by the questions; some even said they felt re-victimized by the blunt language. None would speak publicly by name.

Pentagon officials confirmed receiving complaints that the questions were "intrusive" and "invasive."

The Defense Department said it made the survey much more explicit and detailed this year in order to get more accurate results as the military struggles to reduce sexual assaults while also encouraging victims to come forward to get help.

The survey questions, obtained by The Associated Press, ask about any unwanted sexual experiences or contact. They include very specific wording about men's and women's body parts or other objects, and kinds of contact or penetration.

A sample question, one of a series of 11 graphic questions out of 34 (some are even more detailed):

"Before 9/18/2013, had anyone made you insert an object or body part into someone's mouth, vagina or anus when you did not want to and did not consent?"

"We've had a number of complaints," said Jill Loftus, director of the Navy's sexual assault prevention program. "I've heard second- and third-hand that there are a number of women, officers and enlisted, who have gotten to the point where they've read the questions and they've stopped taking the survey. They found them to be either offensive or too intrusive — 'intrusive, invasive' — those are the words they used."

About 560,000 active duty, National Guard and Reserve members were invited to fill out the questionnaire; that's about five times the number the survey was sent to two years ago. Officials will not say how many responses they have received so far.

Early last year, a report on the 2012 anonymous survey results set off a furor when it estimated that 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted or subjected to unwanted sexual contact. Exasperated members of Congress complained that the Defense Department wasn't doing enough to combat sexual assault and tried to force changes in the Pentagon's legal and command procedures.

Some major changes were enacted, such as stripping commanders of the ability to overturn verdicts and strengthening protections for victims. But other potential changes — keeping defendants' commanders completely out of the process, for example — are still not law.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has pressured the military to deal with its sexual assault problem, said changing the survey questions could skew the study over time.

"I am concerned the new survey was done in a manner that not only prevents comparing apples to apples from previous years. ... I hope this isn't a case of, 'If you don't like the answer, change the question.'"

PHOTO: FILE - In this May 1, 2014 file photo, Nate Galbreath, Senior Executive Adviser for the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), leaves a news conference at the Pentagon. Shocked and offended by explicit questions, some U.S. servicemen and women are complaining about a new sexual-assault survey that hundreds of thousands were asked to complete. The survey is conducted every two years, but this year’s version, developed by the Rand Corp., includes three pages of questions that detail numerous sexual acts. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
FILE - In this May 1, 2014 file photo, Nate Galbreath, Senior Executive Adviser for the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), leaves a news conference at the Pentagon. Shocked and offended by explicit questions, some U.S. servicemen and women are complaining about a new sexual-assault survey that hundreds of thousands were asked to complete. The survey is conducted every two years, but this year’s version, developed by the Rand Corp., includes three pages of questions that detail numerous sexual acts. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

In addition to the Rand questions, Loftus said the Navy sends its own survey to sailors and Marines that is not as specific. She added, "We think we've done a very good job of trying to make people aware of what sexual assault is."

Rand analysts say the more detailed questions are necessary. So does Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's sexual-assault prevention office.

"This is a crime of a very graphic nature," Galbreath said. "For us to improve our understanding, it sometimes requires asking tough questions."

He said the Defense Department hired Rand to develop and conduct the survey this year, based on new direction from Congress that the effort be fully independent of the Pentagon. He was aware of the complaints but said that the more succinct the questions are, the more accurate the results will be.

"Research has told us, if I ask someone, 'Have you ever been raped?' they will say, 'No,'" Galbreath said. "If I ask that same person, 'Have you ever been forced to engage in sexual activity against your will?' they might say 'Yes.' It's because of the loaded terms like rape and sexual assault, that it's not very clear to a lot of people what we may be asking about."

The survey begins with questions about sexual harassment, asking about jokes, "sexual gestures or sexual body movements," requests to take or share sexually suggestive pictures or videos or efforts to establish "an unwanted romantic or sexual relationship."

Kristie Gore, one of the project leaders at Rand, said participants were told they could skip questions they found upsetting, or simply not take the survey. In the end, she said, Rand received a "relatively small" number of complaints.

She said research suggests that "the discomfort from being asked about prior trauma in a confidential survey is temporary and that such questions cause no additional long-term harm to previously traumatized persons."

Andrew Morral, the other project leader, said the questions were based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"If you don't use precise language to describe different types of sexual assault and harassment, people define those terms for themselves in different ways, which leads to ambiguous results," he said.

The report on the 2012 survey, which was released early last year, showed sexual assault incidents rose from about 19,000 in the 2010 survey to 26,000.

Those totals far outdistance the number of sexual assaults that are actually reported by members of the military.

According to the latest report, the number of reported sexual assaults jumped by 50 percent last year as the military worked to get more victims to come forward.

Over the past two years, the military services have tried to increase awareness. Phone numbers and contact information for sexual assault prevention officers are plastered across military bases, including inside the doors of bathroom stalls. And top military officers have traveled to bases around the world speaking on the issue.

In the 2012 anonymous survey, about 6.8 percent of women who answered said they were assaulted and 1.2 percent of men. There are vastly more men in the military; so by the raw numbers, a bit more than 12,000 women said they were assaulted, compared with nearly 14,000 men.

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