A call to action: three ways to combat sexual assault

by Airman 1st Class Krystal Tomlin, Air Force Public Affairs Agency
edited by Meredith March, Defense Media Activity Air Force Production

While moderating the U.S. Air Force Facebook page recently, I came across a question I found difficult to answer. In light of the widespread sexual assault investigation, a concerned parent preparing to send a daughter to basic training asked, “Will my daughter be safe?”

It’s difficult to reassure parents about their children’s safety, knowing the threat of sexual assault exists even beyond basic training. I’ve heard too many stories of service members who have experienced sexual trauma.

According to an annual report by the Department of Defense, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the military during fiscal 2011. An estimated 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, bringing the total to approximately 19,000 sexual assaults per year. Do the math — that’s two assaults every hour in a population comparable to a single major U.S. city. Of those reporting, approximately 397 were men.

Top civilian and military leaders are working to determine the root causes for such widespread atrocity and to provide solutions to correct any problems. Nonprofit organizations, news media and bloggers are holding them accountable. New training was implemented and changes were made in reporting and investigation processes, but there’s still work to be done.

Changing policies and processes is an invaluable component to ensuring the safety of our troops. However, I propose every service member, regardless of rank or position in the chain of command, is duty-bound to perpetuate change toward a military culture free from sexual assault. Our weapons will be intellect, awareness and social activism.

Here are three ways we can all join in the fight:

1. Educate ourselves about elements in society that promote the notion of feminine being inferior to masculine. Let’s put our search engines to work and learn about things like gender stereotypes, consent, victim-blaming, sexual objectification and rape culture, and the impact they have on society.

We can use what we learn to increase awareness, challenge the effect media has on our perception of gender dichotomy and help others see common, harmful messages in pop culture and how certain comments or jokes contribute to the damages.

2. Volunteer at the base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. There’s always a need for advocates, especially in deployed locations, to provide immediate support to men and women who have been assaulted or raped. This type of work isn’t for everybody, so those who don’t feel they are a good fit can find other ways to help.

3. Speak up when we hear jokes or comments that are sexist, hateful, or demeaning toward people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or gender nonconforming. Tolerating these comments may unintentionally normalize a frame of mind that is consistent with rape and sexual assault. We can’t assume everybody within earshot understands the intent of everything we say. Jokes can also give somebody experiencing harassment or assault the impression their unit will be unsupportive.

Believing the unit will be apologetic to the perpetrator, question a survivor’s masculinity or use sexuality as “proof” that an encounter must have been consensual may prevent somebody from seeking necessary help. We have to make it clear from the beginning that we’ll be supportive.

I’m honored to work with men and women who uphold the ethical code citizens expect from our military. It’s unfortunate a few bad seeds have infiltrated the military, but we don’t have to give them room to grow. It’s in our hands. This is not a mission for the faint of heart, but we are the U.S. military.