“Pay attention to your surroundings.” “Be prepared to get yourself home.” “Socialize with people who share your values.” These are just some of the suggestions for women listed on an anti-sexual assault advisory poster in the female bathroom of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, under the header “Preventing Sexual Assault Is Everyone’s Duty”:
Jennifer Stephens, an armed forces veteran and battalion commander in the Ohio National Guard who works on the base, took issue with what she felt was a harmful message conveyed in the poster. “I think this is part of the reason victims are afraid to report incidents,” she said in an interview with Business Insider. “If you’re a victim and you’ve done one of the things on that list, you now feel like it’s your fault that you were sexually assaulted.”
Stephens decided to make her objections known. After pasting a letter criticizing the victim-blaming messaging on top of the poster, she emailed suggestions to the base’s sexual assault response office. Stephens wrote that a more productive approach would be one that “support[s] victims as opposed to tearing victims down by plastering these types of posters all over the base,” and asked, “[H]ow you would feel if you had been assaulted… and one of the first questions they asked you was what you were wearing or if you were alone or if you were drunk?”
The military has been under scrutiny for how it handles sexual assault in light of a recent Pentagon report finding that there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the armed forces in 2012 alone. The Air Force specifically has grappled with several high-profile incidents highlighting its ongoing struggle to curb rape and assault. In May, the Air Force removed the head of its Sexual Assault Prevention Program from duty after he was alleged with groping and assaulting a woman in an Arlington-area strip club parking lot. He was replaced by a woman, Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, in June.
Recent evidence in other sectors of the other armed forces suggests that the most successful anti-sexual assault efforts are actually the ones that focus on potential assailants rather than potential victims. Incidences of sexual assault at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois plummeted by 60 percent after just two years of experimental reforms to its rape awareness and prevention programs — now, the base encourages male service members to self-police by monitoring their and their friends’ alcohol intake and calling out inappropriate behavior. Great Lakes officials have also struck arrangements with local bar and hotel managers in which the businesses can reach out to the Navy if they witness service members acting out of line. The reforms have been so successful that the Navy plans to replicate them on several other bases over the next year.
Federal lawmakers have also taken action to improve current sexual assault policies. In June, the House of Representatives passed a bill protecting victims of sexual assault who report abuse from facing retaliation from superior officers. A bipartisan group of senators including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) are currently working on legislation to remove the sexual assault adjudication process from the military chain of command, instead entrusting such cases to trained military prosecutors.