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Commentary: Telling truths about sexual assault is risky

May. 21, 2013 - 02:34PM   |  
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During his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh made a statement that elicited a visceral response from some in Congress and in the media. Sometimes telling the truth has that effect, but we need more of it.

So, what caused the furor? In comments about sexual assault, Gen. Welsh said, “some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high, even, and high school students now. The same demographic group moves into the military.”

His complete statement was much longer, but that was the phrase that sparked the most response. To some in the hearing room it was only the most recent example of how clueless senior military leaders are on this issue. After all, goes the thinking of some, an increased propensity of a generation to engage in casual sexual relationships has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual assault. The former is consensual and the latter is not.

Clueless indeed. Actually, the senior leaders of the U.S. military may be the most informed leaders on this subject of any institution in America.

This is what the military has learned about sexual assault in the past 10 years:

1. As Gen. Welsh mentioned, when shown a definition of sexual assault, one in five female recruits report they have experienced it. The FBI has said it is the most underreported crime in American society. It is part of the culture that the military reflects, not one that it created.

2. Some assaults are the result of individuals in positions of relative power taking advantage of people below them in the hierarchy.

3. A significant majority of sexual assaults take place where individuals are gathered voluntarily and large quantities of alcohol are being consumed.

4. A smaller number of assaults are committed by predators who may or may not have known, but took advantage of an individual who appeared vulnerable.

5. Since the military started tracking assaults and placing more emphasis on education, prevention and enforcement, the number of reports of sexual assault has actually increased.

How do military professionals know these things? They know them because the U.S. military is the only institution in our society that has taken ownership of this crime. Nobody else, not the church or schools or industry or Congress has studied this phenomenon among its own ranks and accepted responsibility and accountability for it. In fact, most of these institutions, if they will talk about it at all, do not see it as their problem. It is usually dismissed as a “law-enforcement issue.” Fortunately, the military operates within a different ethical construct. If a problem exists among their ranks, it is theirs and they will address it.

But why would Gen. Welsh refer to the hookup generation as even a partial explanation — which is what he did — for the prevalence of sexual assault? Perhaps it is because in this culture there is increased potential for misunderstanding when young men and women get together. What progresses from a voluntary social event to a sexual-assault incident is not something any victim asks for. Even when alcohol is involved, any unwelcome sexual advance and certainly anything that occurs after the victim says “no” or is physically unable to resist is an inexcusable assault. To be more direct, a hookup culture implies that an increasing number of people expect to engage in casual sexual activity. If that is true, individuals who do not want to hook up are more likely to be confronted and potentially assaulted. This in no way excuses terrible behavior, but it does start to explain at least some of it.

The Air Force has a problem, but it is not unique to the Air Force or the other services. It is part of American society. That was Gen. Welsh’s observation, and he was right. It was not an excuse. He and his fellow service chiefs have accepted accountability for the phenomenon in their organizations. Is it getting worse as the reporting suggests? Or, does increased reporting mean victims have a growing confidence in the willingness of the chain of command to deal with the issue? There are people who are certain they know the answer to those questions, but frankly they do not. Nobody does.

The U.S. military will continue fighting this cancer in their ranks. The rest of society should do the same, but probably will not. Make no mistake, the military cannot be given a pass on this. They must educate their people, prosecute offenders and weed out commanders who are unwilling or even reluctant to do so.

In the interim, service chiefs and other senior officers and civilians will be routinely summoned to testify in committee hearings. They will be asked questions and they will give answers. Much to the chagrin of the inquisitors, sometimes they will get answers they do not expect or like. Gen. Welsh spoke the truth. Some were not happy, but if we really want to understand and solve this terrible problem, truth-telling will probably have to be a part of that solution.■

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