By Stacy Kaper

Lawmakers working to combat the alarming escalation of sexual assaults in the military are running into a lack of appreciation that the problem is not just a "women's issue."

Although a greater proportion of women in the military are victims of sexual misconduct (about 6.1 percent, compared with 1.2 percent of men), a fact often lost is that more than half of the victims are actually men. That is because there are so many more men than women in the armed services.

Indeed, men were the victims of 14,000 out of 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military last year, according to a survey released last month by the Defense Department. Those statistics are estimates based on a survey of military members, because the problem of sexual misconduct is chronically underreported. Less than 10 percent of victims report their abuse and men are far less likely than women to come forward.

Even so, there is a proclivity by lawmakers—including some among those seeking solutions—to generalize the problem as a women's issue, arguing it affects them more or is attributable to the rise of women in the armed services. Critics argue this attitude fails to recognize the widespread severity of the crisis and the fact that cases are typically violent crimes of domination, not acts of lust.

"When people describe it as a women's issue, it is an attempt to diminish its significance and that really offends me," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has pressed the issue for a decade. "It's missing the fact that what we are talking about is a crime. It's really disturbing to me when I hear it described in other terms than a crime."

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, one of the few men in Congress who is a lead sponsor of legislation to address the situation, agreed that misunderstandings about sexual assaults complicate the ability of lawmakers to tackle it.

"There is a big misperception that this is only a women's issue," he said. "The focus needs to be on the fact that sexual assault is a crime, and when people reduce it to a gender issue, they assume that perhaps it's just an expression of bad behavior. This is not bad behavior. This is criminal behavior."

Most of the lawmakers championing reforms are women, and many of them—like Reps. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.—expressed similar frustrations.

There are practical impediments to this underappreciated problem.

Nancy Parrish, the president of Protect Our Defenders, argues that while victim services are inadequate for both genders, there are fewer resources available to male victims.

"Part of the challenge is that men report less than women because of the myth that men are strong enough that they could have fought off an attack—men are more likely to be disbelieved," she said. "Additionally, as inadequate as the system is for women, it's often nonexistent for men. The military sexual-trauma coordinators are often housed in women's-health centers, so men are not going to come forward for help."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has taken a leadership role in the Armed Services Committee on the issue, but he defended the rationale for predominantly viewing the issue as a women's one.

"There have been a lot of attacks on men, but it is a women's issue in the respect that it is not a disincentive, in my view, for men to join the military," he said. "If a young woman believes that this could happen, then it could impact our ability to recruit the highest-level young women into the military.... I can't explain it. It's a more emotional issue."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has repeatedly argued that the problem of rising sexual assaults in the military is because of the increase of women in its ranks, and continues to argue that the problem is "predominantly male on female" even though the Pentagon says more than 50 percent of victims of sexual misconduct are men.

"The reason we are having sexual-assault problems … is because we have a culture in the military that is not accommodating the increase in women who are indispensable to the armed forces," Graham told reporters last month.

On Thursday he acknowledged, "It probably is thought of as a women's issue more than it should be."

But he went on to describe the problem as a women's one.

"When it comes to this, you are talking about a male-dominated business where females are beginning to integrate, whether it be fire departments, police departments, you see these problems when that happens," he said. "The good news about the military is we have a unique ability to fix these problems. Women put up with way too much crap. There's no other way to say it."

Pentagon officials and leaders in Congress are trying to take steps to address the crisis, but both parties keep finding themselves guilty of fundamentally mischaracterizing it.

Last month, the Air Force's top commander, Gen. Mark Welsh, came under fire for blaming the rise in sexual assaults on the "hookup mentality" of today's young people. This week, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., was taken to task by lawmakers from both parties, including Turner, for suggesting that "the hormone level created by nature" of young adults entering the service creates the possibility for sexual assaults.

The House and the Senate Armed Services committees are each expected to take up defense legislation next week that includes measures to address sexual assault.

This article appears in the June 7, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.