Friday, November 16, 2012

Reflections on working with the military to end sexual assault

Jeannette Page

I recently had the privilege/challenge of providing a two-day training on sexual assault prevention for sexual assault response coordinators (SARCs) in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) at the air base in Ramstein, Germany.  For those who don’t know, SARCs are responsible for coordinating all sexual assault response and prevention programming at their respective home stations, guided by the directives handed down from the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Office.  Stateside, SARCs are usually civilian employees of the military, but SARCs in USAFE are typically active duty military officers with other responsibilities as well.

I’ve had ample experience working with, and providing training for, various social service organizations, law enforcement agencies and medical providers, but my only prior experience with the military was presenting on agency services at victim advocate trainings for the National Guard here at Camp San Luis Obispo.  As a socially progressive community-based advocate who is anti-war, I was equally intrigued by, and terrified of, this opportunity; I felt strongly that this was an important issue I wanted to support but I worried there would be so little common ground between myself and the SARCs that talking about prevention would be nearly impossible.  What if we couldn’t even agree on what the root causes of sexual assault are, let alone how communities can prevent it? 

Well, to say that my expectations were blown away would be an understatement.  The SARCs who participated in training were well-informed on the latest sexual assault theories and statistics.  They engaged head-on with the material we covered, and clearly had a great deal of passion for their work.  Facilitating this group was no easy task, but in the end I believe we all walked away a little better for it; I know I certainly gained a valuable new perspective on my colleagues in uniform.  While I am by no means an expert on sexual assault in the military, there were some lessons I took away from this experience that I thought might be helpful to share with other civilians in anti-sexual violence work:

  1. Sexual assault in the military is just as bad – but not necessarily worse – than sexual assault in the civilian world.  The prevalence of sexual assault we are grappling with isn’t all that different – the much-publicized 2010 Gallup survey of sexual assault in the Air Force estimated that 19% of women and 2% of men will be sexually assaulted during their time in the military.  These numbers are fairly similar to the percentages for the U.S. as a whole.  The struggles they are facing in the prosecution of military sexual assault – particularly with juries and judges who are steeped in rape myths – are also comparable to those of criminal courts.
  1. Sexual assault programs in the military and community-based programs have more in common than you’d think.  Victim advocates in the military are volunteers who receive 40 hours of training that is very similar to that of many community-based advocates (depending on the agency).  Military victim advocates staff sexual assault hotlines, and they can accompany and advocate for the best interests of survivors who are reporting a sexual assault.  Military sexual assault programs are underfunded and struggle to provide comprehensive services in the face of high turnover and little institutional support.  Sound familiar?
  1. Service members are very sensitive to all the public criticism.  The SARCs I met expressed frustration that the failures of their leadership are so often thrust into the spotlight while little recognition is given to the proactive efforts that are being made to create positive change.  SARCs and victim advocates have been working hard, with the assistance of SAPRO, since the creation of their program in 2005 to respond to military sexual assault.  But to them it seems the public is more interested in scandals and scapegoating rather than real, workable solutions.  While some of the SARCs I spoke with admitted that although the extra attention was definitely spurring the Department of Defense (DoD) and Air Force into action, they thought that singling out the military as “The Worst” was a little unfair (see also: points 1 and 2). 
  1. The military is making great strides, but they need our help.  The military is actually leading the way in some arenas of sexual assault response; for example, their bystander intervention programming is outstanding.  Yet, from what I could tell, sexual assault programs in the military can be very insular and isolated.  The people working in these programs do not necessarily see themselves as belonging in the larger movement to end sexual violence, or having much at stake in the progress that is being made in the civilian world to address sexual assault in institutions of higher education, in prisons, or against undocumented people (just to name a few).  
    SARCs also appear to have a limited ability to advocate for the best interests of their own programs due to the rigid hierarchies involved and the fact that funding for these programs is already under attack.  Military sexual assault programs could greatly benefit from having more allies in the civilian world who are knowledgeable about sexual assault and being willing to speak up and advocate on their behalf. 
    There is so much potential here for collaboration and support.  The military needs community-based advocates, forensic examiners, investigators, and prosecutors who are willing to share their experiences doing this work.  They need us to listen carefully to their experiences, and to benefit from their unique history and expertise. They need us to challenge our lawmakers to make ending sexual assault in the military a priority and to fund it as such.  They need us to speak up when Congress or DoD are creating policies for responding to and preventing sexual assault, to ensure that they will be effective.  Ultimately, they need us to reach out and offer our understanding as well as our collaboration. 

    Have you worked with local military personnel in your area before?  What ideas do you have to build coalition with SARCs and victim advocates in the military? 
    Jeannette Page is an independent consultant and facilitator on sexual assault response and prevention from a social justice perspective based in San Luis Obispo, CA.  She has previously worked for the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center and the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention Center of San Luis Obispo.