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Sexual Assault in Military Further Examined by House Subcommittee

On March 6, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing on preventing sexual assault in the military. This is the second in a series of hearings about sexual assault in the military; the subcommittee held a hearing on victim advocacy and support on January 28 (see The Source, 1/30/09).

Subcommittee Chair Susan Davis (D-CA) stated, “This hearing will look at what programs the individual services, and the Department [of Defense] as a whole, have in place to prevent sexual assaults from ever occurring. Prevention programs can take many forms. Some seek to prevent potential perpetrators from ever committing a sexual assault. Others, so-called “Bystander Programs,” aim to teach people how to spot potential sexual assaults so that they can intervene and prevent them. There are also programs that educate people on how to avoid placing themselves in vulnerable situations…Just as we have a responsibility to ensure that victims of a sexual assault receive all the support that can be provided following an attack, we also have an obligation to do all we can to prevent such attacks from ever taking place. The Department of Defense [DoD] has made significant improvements in recent years, but the question we need ask is, ‘Has enough been done?’”

Ranking Member Joe Wilson (R-SC) said, “I applaud the Department of Defense and the military services for recognizing the importance of prevention and for the steps they have taken to improve programs focused on preventing this crime. With that said, we must not only be assured that the Department of Defense concentrates on programs to prevent sexual assault, but also that the Department will spare nothing to provide victims of sexual assault with the services that they need. We also must know that the Department will aggressively pursue and prosecute perpetrators of this heinous crime. Today I hope to hear from our witnesses how the Department and the military services are implementing the prevention aspect of the comprehensive policy for the prevention and response to sexual assaults…It is clear that the Department and the military services have recognized the importance of partnering with nationally recognized civilian experts to identify best practices and find the right solutions to prevent this devastating crime. I commend the leadership for looking outside of their own organizations and for utilizing all available resources to protect the health and welfare of our service members. Our commitment to help you achieve this goal is unwavering.”

On the first panel, the subcommittee received testimony from representatives of each service branch’s sexual assault prevention office. Ms. Carolyn Collins, program manager of the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program, stated, “I can assure you that the Army takes sexual assault very seriously. Such behavior violates the very essence of what it means to be a soldier and is a betrayal of the Army’s core values. American soldiers are members of a band of brothers and sisters, bound by common values, with duty and loyalty to each other that sets them apart from society…It is in this context that the Army considers the crime of sexual assault and the enabling offense of sexual harassment, and the duty of every soldier to intervene and stop such incidents before they occur.” Ms. Collins further explained the Army’s prevention efforts, stating, “The cornerstone of the Army’s prevention campaign is the “I. A.M. Strong” program, where the letters I, A, and M stand for Intervene, Act, Motivate…[This] program features soldiers as influential role models and provides peer-to-peer messages outlining the Army’s intent for all its members to personally take action in the effort to protect our communities.”

Ms. Katherine Robertson, LCSW, deputy manager of the Navy’s Counseling, Advocacy, and Prevention Program, explained the Navy’s prevention efforts: “Since 1994, the SAVI [Sexual Assault Victim Intervention] program has supported victims of sexual assault and sought to prevent sexual assault from occurring by focusing on offender accountability and victim protection. As more effective prevention methods were developed and made available, Navy SAVI incorporated them and continues to evolve to utilize new and effective civilian prevention methods. Past practices focused on risk reduction in training and within commands, emphasized the role of alcohol and date rape drugs in sexual assaults, and directed shipmates to watch out for their fellow shipmates’ safety.” Speaking to future challenges, Ms. Robertson noted, “Sexual assault prevention will require a cultural transformation. Over the next 5 years, as we implement our prevention strategy in the Navy and as DoD and the other [branches] continue to move from a reactive to a proactive posture, I truly hope that the military, as it did with racial integration and equality, will lead in this vital cultural transformation to end sexual violence in the military.”

Ms. Charlene Bradley, assistant deputy for force management integration in the Air Force, stated that an “Air Force-wide assessment [in 2004] found that commanders were unaware of the prevalence of sexual assault. Because it is the most underreported crime in America, commanders were not seeing large numbers of reports that would trigger them to look at the problem in the broader cultural context. Our collective focus as an institution was on individual cases—commanders, investigators, prosecutors and the medical community were dealing with the individual cases but not the overall problem as a cultural issue. Our subject matter experts were critical to our new understanding of the nature of the crime, the myths concerning perpetrators and victims, and the environment in which sexual assault is allowed to exist…Our ultimate goal is to create an environment and culture where sexual assault does not occur—and frankly, we recognize it will be a long and difficult journey…Prevention is not an individual action or program, but a never-ending commitment. It requires consistent and continuing education and training, consistent and continuing emphasis on standards and values by leadership, consistent support for victims that is visible, and deterrence—holding perpetrators accountable, which is accomplished by having well-trained investigators and prosecutors.”

Rep. Davis touched on the need for culture change, a common theme throughout the hearing, asking what aspects of military culture do and do not tolerate sexual assault. Ms. Robertson noted that service members are “[held] to a higher standard” than general society, while Ms. Collins touched on the need for service members to be “countering media images [regarding acceptable behavior] all the time.”

Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) and Lois Capps (D-CA) both spoke to the question of better screening for those entering the service in order to prevent potential predators from assaulting fellow service members. Ms. Robertson stated, “I don’t believe coming into the military turns you into [an offender]. I think they come in with…those tendencies.” Rep. Shea-Porter reiterated, “We have to find [predators] before they show up.” Rep. Capps emphasized the need to address the problem earlier on, stating, “We have to say to our public schools, ‘What are you doing to help us as these young men and women are prepared for adulthood?’” Ms. Collins emphasized the Army’s collaborations with other agencies (Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Education, in particular) to “[introduce] training that will assess attitudes and behaviors.” 

During the second panel, the subcommittee heard testimony from Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) at the DoD. Dr. Whitley stated, “The culture of the United States Armed Forces has never tolerated sexual assault. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that contribute to this crime are sadly part of our society as a whole. Nevertheless, the Department is in a unique position to alter these factors as part of its enculturation process and as part of the professional development of its personnel…It is our goal to develop a sexual assault prevention program that can be a benchmark for the nation.”

Speaking to SAPRO’s role in preventing sexual assault, Dr. Whitley said, “The Department will, this year, implement a comprehensive and coordinated set of interventions at all levels of the spectrum of prevention within all branches of the military. This will put the military services in the forefront of sexual assault prevention nationally, and would provide a model for other organizations to follow.” Dr. Whitley also noted, “The greatest challenge to preventing sexual assault in the armed forces is the complexity of cultural change—an undertaking chiefly connected to primary prevention…To ensure that our culture expands to incorporate bystander intervention as an acceptable and desired practice, the Department will have to overcome a number of challenges. These challenges include adapting the bystander ethos into the varied and distinct cultures of the four military services; overcoming gender stereotypes that perpetuate sexual assault myths; creating models of healthy masculinity and femininity that encourage and support bystander intervention; developing skills that allow for conflict de-escalation and safe intervention skills; and ensuring that programs address prevention of sexual assault on both genders of victims…Effecting this kind of shift in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors across the several generations represented by our military population is no small undertaking. It will take a great deal of time and substantial resources dedicated specifically for this purpose. Even so, the Department stands committed to this goal.”

Dr. John D. Foubert, associate professor and program coordinator at Oklahoma State University, discussed academic research findings regarding the prevention of sexual assault. He stated, “A study released in 2005 of female U.S. military veterans—both officers and enlisted—found that over one in four experienced rape or attempted rape during their military service…[and] 96 percent of the perpetrators were military personnel…These numbers are why you need to focus on prevention programming.” He added, “I can say with confidence that with the right research-based and proven methods and targeted resources, our military can decimate the rate of rape in its midst. It just takes a sustained commitment to prevention programming, the resources, and will to get it done.”

Dr. Foubert discussed one program, entitled The Men’s Program, which is described as a “powerful program [that] approaches men as potential helpers, not as potential rapists. By seeing a video where a shocking male-on-male rape is described in graphic detail, men learn what it might feel like to be raped. They also develop empathy with how women feel as survivors. After this life-altering experience, audience members hear how to help women recover from rape, learn how they can better define consent in their own intimate encounters, and how they can intervene as bystanders to help end the abuse of women…According to the research, The Men’s Program is the only program in history where men who see it subsequently commit less sexual assault than men who don’t…In controlled studies those who see The Men’s Program commit only about half as much sexual assault as those who don’t see the program. Those who see the program, if they do commit an act of sexual assault, commit an act that is much, much less severe than those who don’t see the program.” This program is already in use in some military facilities, including the U.S. Naval Academy.

In further explaining effective programs, Dr. Foubert stated, “Programs that focus on getting men to focus on respecting women’s “no,” not having sex with women who are intoxicated, not expecting sex (i.e. as a payment for dinner), not interpreting women’s behaviors as an invitation to sex,challenging gender stereotypes and belief of rape myths, and not blaming the victim are rejected by men. This rejection is due to the fact that men do not see themselves in the same group as rapists and therefore do not interpret the information as applicable to them and do not identify educational efforts of challenging rape myths and rape-supportive attitudes as relevant to them. Teaching men to support survivors and act as allies is viewed by men positively.” After viewing several clips of public service announcements designed to inform service members about preventing sexual assault, Rep. Davis asked if Dr. Foubert felt that the methods employed by the videos were effective. Dr. Foubert noted a “disconnect [between] what is considered best practice in rape prevention…[the videos are] diametrically opposed” to what research has shown to be effective.

In closing, Rep. Davis asked if SAPRO had enough funding and resources to enhance its programming. Dr. Whitley replied that the office is “moving in that direction.” Dr. Foubert added, “Over time, I wonder how much money the military could save [on costs associated with sexual assaults] if they focused more on prevention.”

Also testifying were Mr. Raymond Bruneau, manager of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Team of the United States Marine Corps, and Mr. David S. Lee, MPH, director of prevention services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA).

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