Military sexual assault prevention and response: the bystander intervention training approach.

Author:Vukotich, George


Money being spent by the US Military on Sexual Assault Prevention has increased over the years. While it was not until 2005 that Congress mandated the Department of Defense form a task force to investigate the issue and develop a program of prevention and tracking by 2008 it was estimated that the task force had spent $15 million, but had not accomplished anything of substance. In 2009 it was reported that sexual assaults in the military were up 11 percent (Ellison, 2011). Recently the focus has shifted to Bystander Intervention Training as a possible way to reduce the overall incidence of Sexual Assault in the military. This article looks at the efforts of sexual assault prevention and response programs and how they have shaped the attitude of military members.

The Department of Defense estimates that only 20 percent of sexual assaults in the military are reported. With the attention being paid to the issue it brings up the question of whether there has been an increase in the number of sexual assaults in the military or whether it is that more are being reported now than in the past? Studies tell us that 1 in 4 females will be sexual assaulted by the time they are 18 and 1 in 10 males (Rosas, 2003, p. 82).

A New York Times article (Bumiller, 2010) indicated in the prior fiscal year, September 2009 to September 2010, sexual assaults in the military increased 11 percent overall, but also noted there was a 16 percent increase in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The article also pointed to the fact that the Pentagon indicated that this increase may be due more to an increase in the level of reporting than an actual increase in assaults.


Some particular characteristics of a changing military culture including the changing role of women need to be considered. In the past the operational aspects of the military for the most part was all male. With it there was a culture, language and behavior that often were negatively directed toward a number of diverse ethnic groups, gays, and women. It was often limited to the confines of a military facility and not displayed in the larger public. As American Society has changed it also brought changes to the military. Women are no longer in separate isolated roles. They are often integrated with their male counterparts working closely together 24 hours a day. They are often together in remote locations with limited ability to get far away from the operational work they are involved in. This change in work environment has had an impact on the military culture that has brought conflict with what it was in the past. Often progress in one area such as integration of females has caused issues in another. A recent Newsweek article reported that the chances of a woman being sexually assaulted by one of her fellow soldiers is greater than her being killed in combat (Ellison, 2011).

From a male perspective there has also been a significant increase in or at least an increase in the reporting of male-on-male sexual assaults. For years the military played down and in many cases covered up male-on-male sexual assaults, but in 2009 the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that over 50,000 male veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma as compared to 30,000 in 2003 (Ellison, 2011). Up until 1992 the Department of Defense did not acknowledge sexual assault of members by other members, and then initially only female victims were recognized.

Some of the issues came from the military's own definition of rape. In 1951 the military put into effect its Uniform Code of Military Justice. It established a set of codes for all the services and included times of military service in both war and peace. Specifically Article 120 defined rape as "an act of sexual intercourse with a female not his wife, by force and without her consent." It also included "special rules" where rape cases needed corroboration, a requirement that the complaint be current and not dated. It also allowed for questioning into the victim's past sexual history (Sherman, 1969). These rules remained in place until the 1980's.

Over the past five years a number of training courses have been conducted to bring awareness to the issue of sexual assault and the impact it can have on military readiness. The current focus is on helping bystanders understand what they can do to make a difference (Darley & Latane, 1968).

The author of this article has facilitated training sessions related to sexual assault prevention and response for over three years. Combined with this there have been over a thousand individuals in those programs. Early versions of sexual assault prevention and response training had a focus on awareness. The programs were designed to get individuals to know what sexual assault is and that they should not do it. More recent versions such as the bystander intervention approach go beyond awareness to asking individuals to get involved in situations they see that are questionable (Latane & Darley, 1968).

The question that remains is that if individuals have been through training and understand what sexual assault is and that sexual assault is a punishable crime why are the rates continuing to rise. Is it that with the changing culture this is a byproduct or is it that there are not necessarily more sexual assaults, but that more are being reported? Regardless having individuals, bystanders, prepared to take action may make a difference and the study results indicate that most after participating in a bystander intervention program would be more likely to so.


Early training related to sexual assault prevention and response had challenges in getting agreement on exactly what sexual assault is. Even more of a challenge was getting service members to understand what it involves (Air Force Instruction 36-6001, 2008). To begin with, the awareness stage, points out that sexual assault is a punishable crime. One of the most used definitions today is based on Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Sexual assault is defined as:

The intentional sexual contact of another person, characterized by the use of force, physical threat, or abuse of authority, or when a victim does not or cannot consent (unconscious, asleep, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol). It includes; rape, oral and anal sex, inappropriate touching, or attempts to commit these acts. Sexual assault can occur without regard to age, gender, or spousal relationship. Consent is the key term. Just because a person does not say, "No" or offer resistance does not mean that the person has given permission. Often individuals fear or freeze up in situations where they feel they are threatened. In other cases they may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and cannot make a rational decision.


One of the challenges in addressing sexual assault has been issues with reporting. In Fiscal Year 2010 there were 3,158 total reports of sexual assault in the military. The Department of Defense estimates that this number represents only 13.5% of the total of number of sexual assaults. This translates into over 19,000 actual sexual assaults (DOD Releases 2011 Report on Military Sexual Assault, 2011).

In its 2010 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey the DOD reported that, 67% of women indicated they are "uncomfortable" with reporting sexual assault, 54% "feared reprisal," and 46% of both men and women in the military believe that sexual assault was "not important enough" to report at all. The report further went on to state that of the 3,158 reports of sexual assault only 529 went to trial.

There are other issues related to reporting that have made it difficult to get an accurate count of sexual assaults. In the past limited processes were in place, supervisors were not trained to handle situations, and overall victims reporting sexual assault were often made to feel guilty.

According to a report in the Air Force Times in August 2004 which referred to a 96-page study of sexual assault in the Air Force previous barriers included (Gaudiano, 2004):

Fear of being reduced in the eyes of colleagues and their commander. Fear of disciplinary action. Fear of re-victimization. Fear of a negative impact on future opportunities. In some cases victims worked directly with or for their perpetrators. As the culture has changed more cases are being reported. Some of the reasons for an increased level of reporting include:

Less of a negative stigma surrounding those that have been victims. More resources for individuals to draw on to help them. More options on what can be reported and how. In a 2009 report Kaye Whitley, the director of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention and response office indicated that 53 percent of assaults on military members were member on member.

In response to the overall impact on its members the military along with colleges, universities, and other organizations have put more emphasis on addressing issues related to sexual assault and its prevention. American society as a whole has a greater...

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