SAPR: Stepping in to protect lives

by Dr. Tom Appel-Schumacher
U.S. Air Forces in Europe Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program manager

In the past eight years, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa averaged 84 reported sexual assaults per year perpetrated against active duty, Guard, Reserve and civilians — men and

Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program’s goal is to prevent sexual assaults. The estimated annual number of sexual assaults, reported and unreported, that actually took place in USAFE-AFAFRICA is at least 400. Air Force wide, the number could be as high as 3,500. This year, the USAFE-AFAFRICA SAPR program hopes to successfully prevent as many sexual assaults as possible.

For SAPR to be effective, the program relies on the expertise, commitment, and determination of the team, which consists of sexual assault response coordinators, victim advocates, special victim’s counsel members, Air Force Office of Special Investigations investigators, chaplains, sexual assault nurse examiners, medical doctors, mental health providers, social workers, and prosecutors.

Leadership also has a role in program success. Leaders set the tone in the unit and the community to create an environment that does not tolerate or condone sexual assault.

A large part of effective prevention comes from active bystanders who intervene at the right time, right place, and right manner to stop sexual assault in its tracks. SAPR provides Airmen and civilians with helpful information on how to be active bystanders in the war against sexual assault.

The active bystander is someone who is present at the social gathering and has an eye out for situations that do not look or feel right.  For example, a man cornering a woman and pouring her a number of drinks, trying to get a person who is already fairly intoxicated to join a drinking game, or getting someone to go outside to “get some air.”

Particular attention must also be paid to the person pretending to be a “good wingman” — the one who volunteers to drive a person home who is not able to get home by themselves. The SAPR program teaches Airmen, both military and civilian, to be active bystanders and choose to intervene and prevent such situations from developing into sexual assaults.

Eighty percent of sexual assaults occur Friday and Saturday nights, or the nights before a holiday.  These are the nights when people plan parties, decide to spend an evening at the clubs, or go to the movies. In most situations, bystanders are always around. In the Air Force Bystander Intervention Training offered from 2009 to 2012, Airmen learned how to recognize risky situations, how to evaluate when an intervention was needed, and to make a choice to intervene.

There is no single rule of bystander intervention for every situation. But there are some general guidelines to consider when evaluating these situations. Safety should be the first concern — safety for the bystander and safety for the potential victim.  Usually, intervening in a group is safer than intervening individually.

The SAPR program teaches Airmen various methods to intervene and stop a potential sexual assault.  Some of these methods are:   

• Making up an excuse to get them out of a potentially dangerous situation.

• Letting a friend or co-worker know their actions may lead to serious consequences.

• Not leaving their side, despite the efforts of someone trying to get them alone or away from you.

• Using a group of friends to tell someone behaving inappropriately their behavior is not respectful.

• Taking steps to curb someone’s use of alcohol before problems occur.

• Calling the authorities when the situation warrants.

It is necessary for bystanders to be familiar with what constitutes sexual assault. Sexual assault is a crime and includes rape, which is unwanted, or forced sexual intercourse, oral or anal sexual acts. It also includes unwanted touching, groping, and rubbing of areas of the body associated with sexual activity, either through the clothing or directly in contact with skin. Approximately 60 percent of reported sexual assaults fit this latter category.

When an individual plans a social evening, it is important to have a plan. If drinking is present, it’s a good idea to have someone in the group be the designated driver.  In USAFE-AFAFRICA, sexual assaults have been associated with alcohol use in 71 percent of reported cases over the past seven years.  With alcohol, sometimes a person will do things after a few drinks he or she wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Another important safety plan is for friends to make some critical decisions before going to the social event, such as remaining in contact with each other during the party or at the location.  It is difficult for a sexual assault perpetrator to harm someone when others are around. Making an agreement to look after each other adds another level of protection from harm.

Everyone is vulnerable to sexual assault. SAPR awareness training is there for everyone, because each person in a community may have an opportunity to stop a sexual assault. Protecting others is integral to being a member of the military. SAPR knowledge and training enhances the capability to provide that protection.

For more information or to volunteer as a victim advocate, contact the 86th Airlift Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator’s office at 480-7272 or 06371-47-7272.

(Story contains statistics and information from the 2010 Prevalence/Incidence Survey of Sexual Assault in the Air Force, Gallup: Washington, D.C., Dec 2010.)