Exclusive: 1 in 5 Air Force women victim of sexual assault, survey finds
The Air Force is set to release a comprehensive survey about sexual assault, which could become a model as the Pentagon begins to address sexual assault within its ranks more openly.
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While the assault findings are similar to those in the rest of the US population, it is important for the military to explore the extent of its own problem, says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual assault at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and consulted on the Gallup poll.Skip to next paragraph
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“It certainly puts the Air Force in an uncomfortable position, because now they are going to very publicly say, 'Here’s the scope of our problem,' and frankly, that takes guts,” he says.
“There’s no longer a way of saying, ‘Maybe it’s a big problem out there, but I don’t think it’s as big a problem in the Air Force,’ ” Dr. Lisak adds. “It’s sort of a last bastion of denial. The next question is, so what are you going to do about it?”
The survey was designed to help the Air Force evaluate its prevention programs to find out “how much progress we’re making or not making,” says Bradley.
Less than 1 in 5 victims report crimes
Plenty of barriers remain to confronting sexual assault, the survey makes clear. For one, Gallup recommended to the Air Force that it begin to take a closer look at why only a small percentage of victims in the Air Force report the crimes, including less than 1 in 5 women and less than 1 in 15 men.
Though these numbers are similar to the findings of other national studies, according to sex-crime specialists, some of the reasons why airmen may be reluctant to report the crime are unique to the military. While the majority of those who endured unwanted sexual contact said they did not think it was serious enough to report, another trend emerged as well. Nearly 60 percent of women who were raped said they did not want their superiors to know and an even greater number, 63 percent, said they “did not want their fellow airmen to know.” Nearly half said that they "did not want to cause trouble in their unit.”
Such barriers to reporting in the military can be “a little harder” to overcome, says Bradley, particularly when the findings are at odds with the way the force is supposed to function, she adds: “You come into the Air Force as a family – you take care of one another.”
What the Air Force can do
For this reason, the Air Force is concentrating its efforts on a large-scale bystander training program. The findings suggest that many people who are assaulted do tell a friend or fellow airmen, whether they officially report the crime or not. What’s more, says Bradley, “We need to go back and look at training – changing attitudes and behaviors.”
The Air Force has full-time, trained sexual assault response coordinators, or SARCs, at every base, as well as volunteer victim advocates, she adds.
The Air Force is also focusing on better training for military lawyers, who in many cases have little experience compared to the specialized civilian sexual-assault defense lawyers that many alleged perpetrators hire, says Lisak, who helps to train military lawyers.
“All of us who work with the military in this respect, we see very, very young [military] lawyers taking on these cases, and frankly it always seems to me very unfair that very young, relatively inexperienced lawyers are having to go into courtrooms and prosecute cases that are very, very complicated and require a lot of specialized knowledge,” he says.
The Air Force will address all these considerations in the months to come, says Bradley. Once the secretary of the Air Force receives the recommendations of the task force, she adds, “We’re going to have a lot of priorities.”