When United States service members report being sexually assaulted, we hope it leads to prompt investigations and appropriate prosecutions. Rather, reporting rape often marks the onset of retaliation and harassment by their military peers and superiors, which can lead to the end of their military careers.

The Pentagon, Washington, DC, United States. 

© 2008 Flickr/David B. Gleason

After revamping survey questions, the Department of Defense found that 38 percent of sexual assault survivors who reported sexual assault described illegal retaliatory behavior. Earlier surveys had shown that 62 percent of sexual assault survivors who reported said they experienced retaliation.

This is not the good news it appears to be.

The survey’s narrowed definition is supposed to correspond to definitions of retaliation in current law and policy. The real problem is that law and policy are woefully inadequate. The bar for legally punishable retaliation is high and much of what survivors experience may not meet it. But this other harassment may still contribute to pushing them out of military service after they’re labeled as “troublemakers.” In fact, an additional 30 percent of survivors surveyed reported a negative experience after reporting their assaults, but under circumstances that are not illegal.

In other words, 68 percent of survivors have negative experiences after they report.

None of these experiences should be minimized. In our interviews with survivors of military sexual assault, some of the worst stories involved circumstances that would not qualify under current definitions of retaliation. For example, we spoke with survivors who reported their assault and then found themselves facing discipline or criminal charges for minor misconduct, like underage drinking, related to the event. That may not legally count as retaliation, but it certainly does punish victims. As we noted earlier this week, recent plans from the Senate and the Pentagon fail to take up this issue, even though it represents a major impediment to victims coming forward.

If the military and Congress want to confront the problem of sexual assault survivors seeing their careers and their futures crumble after reporting rape, they should listen to the full range of survivors’ descriptions of how that happens. Then they can craft laws and policies accordingly.