HomeNewsCommentariesDisplay

Likely Teammates: SARC, EO

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Sexual assault and sexual harassment have both existed in our culture since the beginning of our history; however, each has had their time of intense focus. Society has always looked at sexual assault as a social evil, but it was a hidden crime, so it hit the military like a lightning bolt when we heard what some were saying was happening in our ranks.

Why was this so shocking? Because for the most part, we were all conditioned to believe these crimes only happened by the stranger rapists that pulled you into the alley or the creepy guy that offered children candy to lure them into his van to take advantage of them.

In the past, sexual harassment and sexual assault most of the time were not even thought to be connected.  For years we thought we had the answer to the problem. We called it prevention, but in the end it sized up to risk reduction.

Our answer for the most part was to tell women and children how to protect themselves from such predators, and we just ignored men and boys altogether in this issue. The list of preventative actions that were taught included these among others: don't go out at night by yourself; don't jog in dark places; don't take a drink from a stranger; don't leave your drink and come back; don't get drunk; and so on. Don't get us wrong, these are all great risk reduction strategies and individuals should try to reduce their risk in any given situation, but we think as a whole we were a bit misguided with these solutions to our sexual violence crimes.

Why? Because now we know that over 80 percent of these sorts of crimes are not committed by strangers, but are perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts.
The military started to look deeper into this issue and realized we had an embedded societal and cultural issue, and the only way to solve these issues would be the long road of addressing each concern one at a time. To some this seemed so overwhelming, so they just reverted back to the risk reduction above to control the issue.
The military has been challenged to look deeper into the issue and ensure our force provides real safety and accountability for this crime. So how do you change the culture?  The first item the Air Force had to come to grips with is there was a problem and it must be solved as a team effort. After that, the Air Force started to look at our processes to deal with the problem.

Since 2005 Sexual Assault Response Coordinators have been in place, and we have had to revise those processes many times to work better. One of our greatest accomplishments is realizing the power of bystander intervention and teaching it to our force. We have no doubt this intervention has saved the Air Force from many possible sexual assaults that could have happened. We also realized this was the only true form of prevention. Another would be the recent release of DEOCS, where Equal Opportunity assesses sexual harassment and SARC assesses sexual assault, and are able to provide clear guidance to commanders concerning the climate of their unit.

So where are we now, as we start to really break things down? We are focusing more on the continuum of harm and how it can lead to sexual assaults, and we are looking at how behaviors affect our environment.

For example, some think a joke is harmless and has nothing to do with sexually assaulting anyone, but it creates a slippery slope of disrespect. If the environment does not have any of these conditions present, the actions of an offender stand out. We have to ask ourselves, are we desensitized to this continuum and is it influencing our perceptions of this problem?

We also have to ask ourselves if we really understand "the insider threat." The non-stranger offender demonstrates behavior progression and grooming methods.  The environment they like to operate in allows them to hide and go unchallenged. When an environment condones or encourages inappropriate behaviors like harassment, jokes, etc., offenders find it easier to hide in plain sight. If the environment is clear of this inappropriate behavior, it allows the actions of an offender to stand out as extreme.

Offenders actively look for targets. They may exploit opportunities and vulnerabilities and use alcohol and threats. With all of this considered, there are many opportunities for intervention. We must address the behavior when we see it at the lowest level and always check our environment for good order and discipline.

Often, there is not a defined line between sexual harassment and sexual assault, so it is a natural progression for SARC and Equal Opportunity to become likely teammates.  A situation can meet the definition of sexual harassment without there being a sexual assault, and a situation can meet the definition of sexual assault without there being sexual harassment. However, a situation that includes conduct meeting the definition of sexual harassment can include "physical conduct of a sexual nature" which can be a sexual assault. 

The SARC and EO offices on Columbus Air Force Base have always worked together as a team to address these issues, even receiving kudos for our training efforts from the Air Education and Training Command commander on our SARC Roadshow. So naturally we want to continue this trend as teammates by bringing all the synergy we can to commanders to address cultural issues.  Our latest effort will be the sexual assault office moving next to the Equal Opportunity office in Bldg. 926, Rm 117.

Remember, as a team we can do great things at Columbus AFB. We look forward to this new transition and all of the possibilities and opportunities it will bring.