Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson has asked coaches to take a bigger role in preventing sexual assaults by talking with athletes about the issue. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — The sexual assault scandals that have rocked the military — and their academies, where officers are trained in a campus-like atmosphere — have challenged leaders to come up with new strategies to prevent sexual assault.
At the Air Force Academy, where 45 sexual assaults were reported between June 2012 and May 2013, cadets are now part of discussion groups that begin with a less- threatening topic: dating.
“The only time we talk to cadets about sex is about sexual assault,” Teresa Beasley, the academy’s sexual assault response coordinator, said in a July 23 interview at the academy, referring to the previous training. “That seems to kind of be an unbalanced way of talking.”
Called bystander intervention training, the new program enables smaller groups to more easily engage in dialogue and act out role-playing scenarios that are based on actual cadets’ experiences but have been changed slightly to protect those cadets’ identities. So far, the entire rising sophomore class has gone through this new training, and incoming basic cadets have gone through a class on healthy relationships and dating.
The smaller groups of cadets first talk about what dating is like for them, how they meet people, and how they communicate with potential romantic partners — conversations, Beasley said, that are less threatening and intimidating than leading off by defining sexual assault. After the conversation is rolling, Beasley said, the groups segue into a discussion of what are healthy boundaries, and then move into talking about sexual assault and what is unhealthy.
“That way, we’ve connected with them, we don’t scare them, and we engage with them,” Beasley said. “And it’s fun. And nobody’s really talking to them about this. I’m not sure they’re getting this at home, or at [high] school, because those funds have been cut.”
Beasley said the academy is taking a cue from nearby Colorado College, which is talking openly about healthy sexuality as part of its sexual assault prevention strategy. The new strategy has been in the works for nearly two years, she said.
Sexual assault has plagued the Air Force Academy for years, and has just hit the headlines again. The Colorado Springs Gazette on Aug. 3 published a lengthy expose into drug use and sexual assault among academy athletes at parties dating back to 2010, which led Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson to call for the inspector general to investigate the athletic department and the “troubling past behavior.” The Gazette reported that the Office of Special Investigations in 2012 planned to throw a party with informants in the crowd as a sting operation, but canceled it because it feared women would be raped there.
The IG review “will help in eliminating subcultures whose climates do not align with our institutional core values,” Johnson said in an Aug. 3 statement.
Johnson also has told athletic coaches to take a bigger role in preventing sexual assaults. “I was frank about the need for them to help the institution enforce our standards,” she said in an Aug. 13 interview with The Associated Press. “I was frank about what happens, the complexity of sexual-assault prevention.”
Reported assaults at the academy dropped to 45 between June 2012 and May 2013, lower than the high of 52 the previous year. The academy accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 70 reported sexual assaults at all service academies in the most recent report. Statistics for June 2013 to May 2014 are not yet available.
Johnson said in a July 21 interview with Air Force Times that sexual assault is an area “where we can never declare victory.” But she is seeing progress. After taking the reins of the academy last year, Johnson said she aligned offices that deal with sexual assault prevention and response across the air base wing, the cadet area, athletics, and other facets of the academy, so they could work better together. To recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the academy held a Take Back the Night rally April 17 on the terrazzo, during which Johnson lit a bonfire.
“That in and of itself doesn’t change something, but it does change the awareness, to understand what the challenges are,” Johnson said.
The academy invited educator and author Jackson Katz, who focuses on gender violence prevention education in schools, sports and the military, to talk to the athletic department in April about preventing violence against women. He was scheduled to return later in August. Also in August, the academy planned to bring in a group called Sex Signals — a program that combines improv comedy, education and audience participation to examine dating, sex and date rape on college campuses — to help cadets understand what others are saying about sex and what signals they themselves are sending.
Shift in strategy
The shift in strategy is the academy’s attempt to not come off as “preachy” and to avoid “message fatigue” — the risk that cadets will begin to tune out their message on preventing sexual assault — and keep things fresh and innovative, Beasley said. The large group training and PowerPoint didn’t work, she said.
The academy’s new program has also been tailored specifically for its cadets. Previously, the academy has used national programs that were for a more general audience.
And that’s important, because the academy has a different culture than nearly every other university in the nation. The students are the same age as most college students, but tend to come from more culturally conservative backgrounds, Beasley said. And the academy has rules against fraternization and bans against sex in the dorms.
So from the start, after basics arrive, the academy begins discussions about boundaries such as not dating upperclassmen when one is a freshman, and about what cadets are comfortable doing once they do start dating. Cadets often don’t think ahead about how far they’re willing to go until they’re in a situation, Beasley said, and then they have to make an on-the-spot judgment.
Beasley said most of the sexual assault the academy sees is defined as “coercion.” Under that type of sexual assault, a victim is repeatedly pressured for sex, despite saying no, until the victim finally gives in. The academy is trying to teach cadets that when someone says no, that refusal should be respected.
The bystander training also addresses a “quid pro quo” type of sexual assault — where someone in a position of authority threatens to, for example, put a cadet on a lousy duty or withhold a plum assignment if the cadet does not agree to sex.
Most rapes don’t occur out of the blue one day, Beasley said. Perpetrators typically start with comments, and over time move on to uncomfortable touching, and later try to strongly persuade someone to have sex or demand a quid pro quo. Beasley said the academy is trying to stop sexual assault at the beginning of those interactions.
Cadets also discuss and learn how to intervene to prevent a potential sexual assault when they see something going wrong in a bar or other social scene — without themselves getting hurt.
“They’ll say, how do I know it’s a bad thing?” Beasley said. “You trust your gut. If you get that gut feeling that something’s wrong, there’s probably something wrong. And then the next thing you need to consider is, how can I intervene safely?”
A safe intervention at a bar could be female cadets stepping in and asking a potential victim to come to the bathroom with them, Beasley said.
The program also uses scenarios to try to get across that having sex with someone who is intoxicated and can’t consent is unacceptable.
“You don’t need to know their blood-alcohol content. It’s just not a good idea,” Beasley said. “We want to prevent them from becoming a perpetrator.”
Even though academy cadets are more conservative than most of their peers, Beasley said, they’ll still talk about sex and dating more openly than previous generations did. So to adjust to that different culture, those leading the program have to use the same language they do.
“What does it mean when you’re talking to somebody?” Beasley said. “I’m not even sure they know. Talking means pre-dating, and then you go into dating. We used to call it going steady. There were very definite rites of passage when you were dating somebody, and now it’s more iffy. The boundaries are different. We talk about boundaries, and how do you know you’re in a relationship, and will you have the talk? What’s the talk? How do you know if you’re OK with something and your partner’s not? Once you get them talking, they’ll talk your ear off.”
But academy leaders also can’t show surprise when a cadet uses a franker word or concept than they’re used to. If someone shows shock, Beasley said, the cadets will shut down and no longer be willing to engage further. So the academy trains officials such as cadet squadron commanders and trainers on how to talk to cadets about sex.
“They want to talk to them, that’s their first- line supervisor,” Beasley said. “But it’s hard to talk about it, because these are conversations that parents should have had with them, in an ideal world. A lot of times, we are in that parenting role in having those conversations. But someone needs to have it with them.”