When I first heard the story about the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response chief who was accused of sexual assault, my heart sank. As an advocate in this field, it has always been a fear of mine to hear about an advocate assaulting someone. And then, in the same month, another similar story comes out about an Army enlisted SAPR personnel who assaulted multiple female soldiers of a lower rank.
The impact that these stories have go beyond the respective bases where these individuals were stationed. These assaults and charges, especially since they involve SAPR personnel, do not happen within a vacuum and the ripple effect created by these two incidents will impact survivors who have and haven’t reported, military personnel, and environments. The work to repair the trust and safety in addition to alleviating the new doubts and barriers will be long, hard, and multi-faceted.
We already knew that the majority of sexual assault survivors did not report their case, either in a restricted or unrestricted manner. The previous numbers (based on anonymous survey) reflected that almost 3,200 reports were made in FY2011 but the estimated number of survivors was well over 19,000. The newest report for FY2012 reflects an uptick in both numbers – the number of reports increased to almost 3,400 but the number of people anonymously reporting unwanted sexual contact dramatically increased to 26,000!
What I believe, although there is no scientific evidence, is that this increase in anonymous reports is because people felt safer to report their experiences than in previous years. It does not necessarily mean that there is an actual increase in the prevalence of sexual violence within the military. We have seen similar trends in reports of civilian experiences with rape and sexual assault. While many of these individuals still didn’t make an official report, having more accurate numbers of the people impacted can be beneficial for programs, service providers, funding, and creating policies.
Historically, there have been dismal reporting numbers of rape and sexual assault. That dramatically changed with the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2004 and again with the creation of restricted reporting shortly after. The presence of advocates, the recognition that sexual assault can be incredibly difficult to report, and additional resources for survivors made it easier for many people to come forward. However, much like in general society, there are still many people who identify as experiencing sexual violence but who do not report or utilize the SAPR office.
The articles that have recently come out about SAPR personnel charged with sexual assault forces military sexual assault advocacy back a few steps. If survivors cannot feel safe in the one place that is supposed to understand, explain options, provide resources, and advocate on their behalf then where can they feel safe? One of the most commonly quoted reasons that people don’t come forward, and one that I heard frequently as a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) for the Navy, was that people didn’t trust their chain of command to handle their case appropriately. Now, survivors have to worry about both their chain of command and the SAPR office personnel handling their cases.
One thing we always highlight in trainings and workshops is that it is extremely difficult for a survivor to disclose, regardless of whether it is to a friend or family member or a formal resource like the police or a rape crisis center. When reporting to a rape crisis center or the SAPR office, someone is taking a giant leap of faith. Oftentimes they are talking to a complete stranger and trusting that this stranger is going to be a positive and beneficial ally and resource. The charges that are now coming out of the Air Force and Army SAPR offices are going to make it exponentially more difficult for survivors across the military to trust these strangers and to have trust in the system.
Military survivors, both male and female, already face a large number of personal and career barriers to reporting. The SAPR office and program should be working to break down those barriers and increase the safety and trust of survivors rather than adding additional barriers.
These incidents are also going to have an impact on the other military departments, units, and the overall environment. It seems that every day there is a new story focusing on the problematic culture in the military: a general engaging in victim-blaming, a brochure that tells victims to submit, the entire Lackland incident, a lieutenant general overturning an Air Force conviction of sexual assault, and top brass officers stating that they support both the conviction and the overturn decision. Mixed up in all these stories is the same message over and over again to survivors: don’t report because you won’t be supported.
The SAPR office is supposed to be countering these statements with trainings, prevention work, and advocacy. If SAPR isn’t providing a safe environment for survivors then they don’t have a leg to stand on when making recommendations or providing trainings. If they are taking this issue and the people it impacts seriously, then other departments units, and top officers are going to follow suit.
The environment that is set up in an office by the people in charge and the social leaders will have a direct impact on the other people who share that office. It can impact who is hired, the topics that are given attention, the overall attitude, culture, and acceptable behavior. The fact that the person in charge of the office is committing acts of sexual violence makes me question the behaviors of others working in the same environment.
Research and anecdotal information has shown us that people who perpetrate are attracted to environments where their behaviors won’t be questioned and they are least likely to be caught. When working with childcare organizations, we recommend asking each applicant whether they have ever engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior. While the applicant can lie, it puts across the message that this is the type of environment and culture that any inappropriate behaviors will be called out and addressed. Therefore, it will be more difficult to get away with these behaviors than at other organizations who may feel too uncomfortable asking that question of each applicant.
There is an assumption that people who get into an anti-violence field should be trusted and that they are caring, compassionate, and supportive of the issue. However, that is not always the case. Some people enter this work as a way to disguise the harm and violence they engage in and to alleviate any suspicion that would otherwise befall them. Because of course, why would someone who worked to end rape actually rape someone? Those allegations just can’t be true. In fact, people can hide themselves in this work, take advantage of the status that is allocated to them, and take advantage of the vulnerable people who are seeking help. I do not say this to scare people away from seeking services. Overwhelmingly, the people involved in this field are truly dedicated to the work.
The same screening process that we recommend for other agencies should be present within anti-violence agencies. Employees and volunteers should be asked whether they have ever been sexually (or physically or emotionally, …) inappropriate with anyone. I applied for a victim advocate position with a police force in CO and I was asked this question multiple times during a polygraph exam. While I’m sure it was uncomfortable for the polygrapher to ask that question, I respected the organization more because they were thinking about the victims I’d be working with in addition to my co-workers and the environment. During my entire interview process as a contract Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the Navy, no one ever asked me about any inappropriate behaviors. I can only assume that is standard across the board. Needless to say, that is a problem.
Working within the government and military is a completely different environment then working within the civilian sphere. One of the requirements of the SAPR program is that each military unit has to have a trained victim advocate. What that means is if no one volunteers to take on this position, then the commander picks someone and sends them to training. This means that some people sitting through training are not interested in the issue or the job which impacts the services that survivors receive. Other times, people volunteer for this position because it is seen as high priority duty and it looks good on evaluations. As we saw in the Army case, the person was assigned to the position rather than opting into it or even proving an established history of victim services and knowledge of the subject matter. This process can result in under qualified or disinterested personnel providing services to survivors of rape and sexual assault and giving recommendations to the base commander.
When working within the Navy, I met many people who were in SARC or Victim Advocate positions who were either underqualified or doing the job for the wrong reasons. This translates into poor services for survivors, incorrect information, inappropriate materials, and a variety of other repercussions.
Recently Secretary of Defense Hagel stated that all SAPR personnel were to be retrained, recredentialed, and rescreened. However, who will be in charge of ensuring that those providing sexual assault services are actually qualified? If those hired to provide the services are being called into question then who is left to create those guidelines?
Hagel has also spoken about eliminating the power of senior commanders to overturn jury verdicts. Top military officials have frequently shown that they aren’t versed enough in the issue of sexual violence to be making these calls. Quite frankly, top military officials are at the top because they have spent their lives in the military and had the appropriate experience and behaviors to move up the ranks. It’s time to allow the experts in sexual violence the chance to provide their knowledge, expertise, services, and passion to the military and to the survivors within the military.
More than 26,000 survivors each year is a serious problem and every single one deserves access to competent, compassionate, and qualified service providers.
WRITTEN BY: Stacey