Sexual assault prevention: moving beyond awareness

by Gen. Larry Spencer Air Force Vice Chief of Staff

WASHINGTON — Since 2001, April has been the month that the nation has focused its attention on sexual assault awareness and the impact this crime has had on its victims. This year, the Department of Defense deliberately renamed the annual effort, Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. I want to take this opportunity to share with you how the Air Force is focusing on the prevention of this crime and stopping it before it takes place.

Our weeklong prevention summit kicked off the new year and brought together experts in the sexual assault prevention field and Airmen from across the force — active duty, Guard, Reserve, civilian, officer and enlisted.

The goals were to better understand sexual assault and determine how to put prevention into action throughout the Air Force.

So, what did we learn? Most importantly, we learned that sexual assault can be prevented. Effective sexual assault prevention strategies focus on preventing perpetration because that is the only guaranteed way to stop the violence. Raising awareness about sexual assault is an important step toward prevention, but awareness alone will not create the individual or societal changes needed to stop sexual assault.

Based on decades of prevention science, we know that prevention of sexual assault involves addressing factors that put individuals at risk for perpetrating sexual assault. Some prevention approaches include teaching skills to change attitudes or behaviors that are associated with assault. Other approaches equip bystanders with the skills to spot and intervene in high-risk situations or to speak out against language and practices that create a culture that tolerates or promotes sexual assault.

Strategies that simply raise awareness, foster understanding of sexual assault without providing tools to take action. Tools for changing behaviors, relationships and our culture are key to making every Airman a change agent and to create a force free from assault.

The prevention summit culminated with Airmen’s recommendations to prevent sexual assault. We are working hard to build programs across the Air Force based on these recommendations. In the meantime, I challenge every Airman to move beyond mere awareness and equip themselves, their co-workers, their subordinates and everyone in their sphere of influence, with the tools they need to prevent sexual assault.

2014 prevalence of sexual assault in the Air Force:

• Women: 2.3 percent or 1,359 female Airmen
• Men: 0.43 percent or 1,013 male Airmen

Source: Rand 2014

What can every Airman do to prevent sexual assault?

• Model healthy respectful behaviors in every relationship.
• Access and use resources that teach skills to foster healthy sexuality and healthy relationships.
• Speak up and step in when you hear sexist jokes or language, or see someone at risk for perpetrating violence.
• Consider what actions might inadvertently reinforce sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual assault, including sexual hazing. Take steps to create a culture where healthy, respectful relationships are encouraged and violence is not tolerated.