The U.S. Department of Defense is catching heat for a poster that some say appears to put the onus of sexual assault prevention on possible victims. The U.S. Air Force poster offers service members pointers like: be aware of your surroundings, don’t accept drinks from people you don’t know and socialize with people who share your values.
When a female battery commander in Ohio saw the poster taped up in a bathroom at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, she was appalled. The commander followed up with an open letter to military sexual assault response coordinators asking that they consider the feelings of victims and change their approach to sexual assault and harassment prevention.
Former Marine Captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, Anu Bhagwati, joined Jansing & Co. Tuesday and said the poster demonstrated a failure on DOD’s part.
“There are no posters out there that say don’t rape, don’t assault, don’t harass. That’s the kind of messaging we need to see from the DOD,” said Bhagwati. “[DOD] simply fails to understand that women and men who are raped and harassed are not responsible for their own rapes, assaults or harassments. That it’s the perpetrator who should be held accountable.”
The U.S. Air Force countered that the poster was only one part of its efforts to prevent sexual assault among its ranks.
“The poster in question is hardly the sum total of our attempts to prevent sexual assault,” it said in a statement provided to Jansing & Co. Tuesday. “We have implemented robust training for all airmen, designed both to deter potential offenders as well as give airmen the awareness and tools they need to step in and stop assaults from taking place.”
A recent Pentagon report that estimated as many as 26,000 military service members may have been assaulted last year has led to several reform proposals on Capitol Hill and a number of high-profile hearings. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have authored two bills offering separate approaches to address the issue of rape in the military.
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has also joined the fight. On Monday, Mikulski said that a new commission to assess whether how successfully military service academy superintendents are addressing the issue of military sexual assault was added to the 2014 Senate Defense Appropriations bill.
“I have been working on this issue for more than 25 years and keep hearing that the military has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual assault,” she said in a statement. “The message stays the same but the problem keeps getting worse. Service academies should be a point of prevention in stopping illegal and unethical behavior.”
While Bhagwati acknowledges that the academies are a good place to start, she says that most military officers receive their training through the Reserve Officers Training Corp, known as ROTC, or through other military training programs that are run outside of the academies. She argues that the military needs to work more broadly to train officers from day one.
“It’s important that we understand training future officers includes teaching accountability on day one, that if you commit a crime or if you harass your fellow service members, we are going to…end your career,” concluded Bhagwati.