Everyone must do their part

By Staff Sgt. Antonio Gonzalez
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

One in three women are sexually assaulted over their lifetime, and I have a problem with that statistic. In my world, it’s three out of three: my mother, my sister and my wife.

Earlier in January, I attended the first-ever Sexual Assault Prevention Summit as one of 150 active-duty, reserve, guard and civilian Airmen from all ranks and demographics. The very first thing we were asked was: “How many of you know someone who has been sexually assaulted?” Almost all 150 hands raised in unison.

I realized that this crime touches nearly every corner of the force, whether Airmen realize it or not.

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A Sexual Assault Prevention summit attendee asks a question during a lecture at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dr. Kimberly Dickman/Released)

We received numerous briefings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers in the field of sexual violence, academia professors, professionalism experts, motivational speakers, social marketing consultants – the Air Force really spared no expense with the knowledge they provided us over the five-day summit.

I realized throughout the summit that the Air Force has been going about it the wrong way for the majority of time I’ve been in the military.

I learned that in the past, we have looked at the problem in two ways: by focusing on potential perpetrators (men) and potential victims (women).

We have told the men, “don’t rape”, and they say, “yes, I won’t rape, check me off for the mandatory briefing,” and they go on their way. Then we tell women, “don’t dress provocatively, watch your alcohol intake and take self-defense courses.” We are essentially saying “don’t get raped.” Did anything really change? No. The overwhelming majority of men in the Air Force will never commit a sexual assault, so they are put off by this message. Then we blame women for letting it happen because of how they dress or act. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted.

So how do we fix it?

The first step in finding a solution is to acknowledge that we have a problem communicating the message about sexual assault to our Airmen.

I believe one thing should be communicated clearly – that everyone will do their part.

Instead of telling people what they shouldn’t be doing, let’s focus on what they should be doing. Let’s teach our Airmen what healthy relationships truly are and get the point across that sex is not a means to an end or a destination, but a journey between two willing individuals. Let’s be real, nobody wants to talk about sex unless it’s positive.

We need our Airmen to reconsider their role in prevention. We all know sexual assault is bad, yet we don’t have enough people doing something about it.

An Airman made a comment during the summit about how they received SAPR training at basic military training,and at technical training. Everything seemed fine in those environments. It wasn’t until they arrived at their first duty station that they were shocked by the atmosphere that was allowed to exist. The Airman was told that this is how it is in the “real Air Force.” Well, the problem isn’t a bunch of young adults horsing around, it’s the enablers that allow this environment to exist in the “real Air Force.” No more “going along to get along”. We must stop pleasing our peers and start serving them for the greater good of our force. All it takes is one person to speak up and put an end to it.

We can change our culture’s norms. We are in a unique position to do this thanks to our unique military culture. This isn’t some college campus run amuck. This is the United States Air Force; we are held to a higher standard, and our nation expects better from us. We should lead the way forward.

This Sexual Assault Prevention Summit was not about finding the “silver bullet” when it comes to eliminating sexual assault in the Air Force, however it was more about taking a step in the right direction for our future generations of Airmen.

Staff Sgt. Antonio Gonzalez embraces his newborn daughter at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., in 2012. (Courtesy photo)

If we continue to evolve and take steps forward, I foresee a bright future for our military. One that I won’t fear my daughter serving in.