The amount of attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military is encouraging. Acknowledging the reality of these assaults is the necessary first step. Being shocked and angry about that reality is the next. Now the hard work of finding solutions can begin.
It would be a mistake to look at assaults within the military and the response to those assaults as fundamentally different from what happens in the civilian world. Yes, there are particulars about military life that are unique, and some of those factors do contribute to supports for sexual violence and additional barriers to reporting. Those factors need to be examined and changed. But the root causes of sexual violence and the barriers to reporting assaults are pervasive. None of our communities have done a stellar job at either response or prevention. It’s important to note that the military hasn’t been any slower with these steps than any other segment of our society.
While there are some communities, such as the military and college campuses, where the problem seems to be worse, there are no communities where sexual assaults are not committed or where cultural support for these assaults don’t exist. It is helpful to study the particulars but equally important to consider the commonalities.
Sexual assaults are a crime of power. They are rooted in beliefs about entitlement and who does and does not deserve respect. They are supported by rigid gender stereotypes, and fueled by common language that confuses sex and sexual assault. These beliefs and the language used to express them are the main barriers to reporting assaults and a big influence on what happens when they are reported. Survivors of the crime hear this language and wonder if they will be believed and supported. Jurors hear this language; commanding officers and members of military courts hear this language. It affects their understanding of these cases. It affects us all.
The current military struggle to develop alternative reporting options for military personnel who are assaulted is similar to the struggle that colleges face. The institutional structures, laws and regulations that complicate reporting procedures are different but the fact that there are complicating structures that often collide with a survivor’s need for safety and control is much the same. The search for effective prevention is also similar. Telling perpetrators that sexual assault is wrong and they might be caught and convicted is not prevention. Both military and civilian citizens need basic information about why sexual assaults are committed, what they can do to help prevent them, and how they can support survivors. Perpetrators will not stop until a critical mass of people around them call them out on their behavior. One of the bright signs in the work being done now by the military is some willingness to look beyond long-held beliefs about prevention that obviously aren’t working.
During the past year, We End Violence has collaborated with a number of Air Force bases on prevention efforts where the involvement of base commanders has been evident. In his presentations, director Jeff Bucholtz has used the straightforward approach–including humor and popular culture analysis–that has been successful for many years with college students. Jeff challenges stereotypical assumptions and pushes the audience to think critically about the causes of sexual violence and how we are all responsible for both positive and negative contributions to that violence. This approach has been welcomed by commanders as well as the base staff devoted to sexual violence response and prevention.
The military clearly has a big problem and they are being pushed hard to solve it. Perhaps this will be the segment of our society that leads the way.
by Carol Mosely, Director,
We End Violence