Sexual Assault, what about personal responsibility?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Iris Coleman
  • 8th Fighter Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator
Usually when I'm facilitating group discussions on sexual assault someone inevitably says - "okay, I know sexual assault is wrong, got it - the person who committed the assault is the only one to blame, check - but really, at the end of the day aren't we all responsible for ourselves?"

A lot of people are probably thinking that. Someone might even ask "why am I being constantly reminded of taking care of someone else who should be taking care of themselves?"

I don't think that is an unreasonable question, I understand the frustration. In fact to some degree that's what many of us were taught growing up--personal responsibility.

But here's the thing, that's not ALL I was also taught I am indeed my brother's keeper, and although I cannot protect my brother from all harm, when I have the opportunity to support and or defend him I will - in fact I must, particularly in the case of sexual assault.

To that someone might say, "yeah but there's only so much you can do to protect someone who constantly puts themselves in danger." That's absolutely true - the question then becomes - how much ARE you willing to do? All too often the extent to what some of us are willing to do is to tell the victim where they went wrong and help them and others to understand what not to do in the future.

Perhaps that's the most some will do because it's easy. For them it's easier to confront victims than perpetrators, frankly it takes less courage. This is why perpetrators get away with committing one assault after another.

The environment around victims becomes permissive for predators when wingmen, supervisors, and other leaders focus their attention on victim behavior rather than the behavior of predators.

If you have a bed of roses, and weeds begin choking them off, do you take the roses out of the soil and plant them somewhere else, or do you try to figure out what is it about the roses that attract weeds and then set about fixing the problems? Of course not, the more effective response is to remove the weeds, focusing on the root of the problem.

When people are sexually assaulted the root of the problem is the perpetrator, not the things the victim did or did not do preceding, during or following the assault. Of course risk reduction is a critical element in staying safe, and most people take reasonable efforts to keep themselves safe, they accept personal responsibility.

Nevertheless, even careful people are sexually assaulted, which is why focusing on the victim of a crime - even if that person took no caution whatsoever, is an exercise in futility; because the thing that's guaranteed to stop sexual assaults is stopping the people who commit them.

Sexual assault in the military is a problem we have got to solve together, and the most effective thing we can all do is confront predatory behavior when we see it in its infancy.

This means challenging sexual jokes and comments in the workplace when we hear them, keeping an eye on people who seem to be targeting a specific person - typically a very vulnerable person - maybe junior in rank and age, new to the squadron or installation, open to heavy drinking etc.; taking note of a potential perpetrator's efforts to increase their vulnerability - taking them out drinking, buying them alcohol and creating opportunities to isolate the victim.

When you see these actions intervene, say something...act. Bystander intervention, courage and leadership - this is how we protect one another; sexual assault has no place in our military and it's everyone's responsibility to get rid of it.