Training Programs & 24-Hour Hotlines Are Great, But When Is the Air Force Really Going to Tackle Sexual Violence?

Last Tuesday, Mother Jones ran an interesting article on actions taken by the U.S. Air Force to counter the epidemic of sexual assaults occurring in its bases and Academy.

Its efforts were spurred by the scandal that occurred two and a half years at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio during a training program. As Mother Jones reports, at least 70 individuals came forward with charges of “unwanted touching, inappropriate relationships, and rape” by at least 30 training instructors.

In the wake of the scandal, the Air Force set up 24-hour hotlines in dorms, launched leadership training for basic training instructors, increased the number of female training instructors, and implemented dozens of other changes. The Air Force has bragged about a reduction in sexual assaults, including at the Air Force Academy, where assaults dropped from 45 in 2013 to 27 in 2014. The entire military heralds higher reporting rates, and lower numbers in actual assaults that appeared in two recent surveys.

These 'correctives' look great. I would like to be believe that they've made some sort of dent in reducing assaults and other forms of sexual violence experienced by service members. But, a few issues remain.

Take the new training, for example. "These courses can be okay for laying out the ground rules…but they don't change attitudes," says Stephen Xenakis, MD, a retired Army brigadier general and psychiatrist who is quoted in the article.

Yes, how can the problem of systematic, epidemic levels of sexual assault in the military be thoroughly challenged when women and girls are so devalued in our society and rape is so normalized? So, the problem of systematic sexual violence is most definitely a structural one and not one that can be easily addressed.

It's surprising (well, not really), then, that the one intervention that could actually change things is not even on the Air Force's radar: removing the reporting and investigation of sex crimes from the chain of command.

[V]ictims' advocates, former military officers, and lawmakers assert that sexual assault in the military remains an epidemic, and that as long as victims' commanders are responsible for initiating investigations for sexual assaults, victims will continue to find it difficult to report assaults and justifiably fear reprisals for doing so.
Since most military sexual assaults occur within units, that supervisor is often the commander of both the victim and the accused—a fact that can lead to retaliation against people who report assaults. Sixty-two percent of respondents in a 2014 RAND Corporation survey of all service members who reported assaults said they experienced some social or professional retaliation after making the claim, including a reduction in rank, a decrease in pay, or being forced out of the military entirely.
"In the military, your rapists' boss decides whether or not a sexual-assault allegation is investigated," Christensen says. "This puts commanders in an impossible position." [According to the article, they might fear a “black mark” on their career records. Or, they might just be disincentivized because of the lack of repercussions for poorly handling allegations of sexual violence.]

It's beyond unacceptable that commanders be allowed to investigate cases of sexual assault. Of course, this tainted process poses a conflict of interest and ethical breach when alleged victims and victimizers both report to the same investigator.

But, even with mounting legislative pressure and public outcry, many military insiders still contend that changing the procedures for reporting and investigating sexual crimes in the Air Force would foster an “adversarial” relationship between commanders and their charges. They also say that changing things would be unfeasible. Shameful and needs to change.