Decades ago, the U.S. Army offered sometimes degrading suggestions on how to avoid rapists, survive a sexual assault and what to do in the aftermath of an attack. Advocates for victims of sexual trauma say the Pentagon is still struggling to change its message.
In 1976, the ground combat branch published a handbook called Be Aware—Guard Against Rape that describes what an individual should do to avoid attackers. The 15-page document solely targets women.
“Every woman is a potential rape victim,” the training circular declares. “This makes you the most important person in rape prevention.”
The handbook opens by explaining how women can “avoid becoming a victim,” whether it they’re at home, going to the car or just walking around outside. The manual includes traditional maxims like always going out in groups, staying in lighted areas and locking doors and windows.
But some of the other advice suggests that potential victims might actually be provoking the criminals. For instance, responding “to catcalls, whistles, or remarks … only encourages the person who does this,” the guide explains.
“Aimless rambling gives an appearance encouraging to assaults,” the pamphlet continues. And importantly, remember to “wear comfortable clothing and shoes adaptable to running,” in case you do catch someone’s eye.
If that happens, “cross the street, zig zag, or enter a store, gas station, or even a barracks,” the guidebook suggests. But “the best defense against rape is to be aware and to avoid potential rape situations.”
The guidebook also tells victims not to panic if an assault does occur—and to look for an opportunity to fight back or escape. “If you are well versed in self-defense, such as judo or karate, these methods will definitely help.”
Finally, individuals who suffer an attack are advised to report the crime and seek medical attention immediately. Survivors should seek out the support of “chaplains, mental hygienists, psychologists and counselors.”
“Looking at this through the lens of 2014 it is easy to see how offensive this ‘blame the victim’ 1970s’ mentality was,” says Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for service members—men and women—who have been victims of sexual harassment and violence.
Today, advocates and experts focus on stopping potential rapists … rather than merely telling people what they can do to avoid a sexual assault. “Know that what happened was not your fault,” the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network stresses on its Website.
Since 2009, the Army has switched up its advice for preventing rape. The I A.M. Strong campaign—the letters stand for “intervene, act and motivate”—encourages bystanders to intervene or report sexual violence.
The ground combat branch also now trains both men and women how to prevent sexual harassment and assault. “Every soldier in the Army is charged with creating a culture of respect where these behaviors are not tolerated and are prevented,” Army spokesman Hank Minitrez told War Is Boring.
But the military has struggled to entirely shake off the old mentality.
“Unfortunately, these outdated victim blaming tactics have not been entirely erased from the military’s prevention strategy,” Parrish says.
For instance, Shaw Air Force Base’s sexual assault prevention program handed out brochures that incited the ire of politicians and the public last year. The tri-fold handout included advice for avoiding risks around the house, in or around one’s vehicle and while out in public.
Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, was especially incensed with the pamphlet’s contents. “The brochure … contains multiple victim-blaming and inappropriate regarding sexual assault,” the congresswoman wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
But Slaughter’s biggest objection was to the advice that people should submit to their attackers—something the Army’s 40-year old handbook actually doesn’t advocate.
“No service member wearing the uniform of the United States military should ever be told ‘it may be advisable to submit than to resist’ in the case of a sexual assault,” Slaughter said in a follow-on statement from her office.
The Air Force yanked the brochure after the outcry. The Pentagon assured Slaughter and others that its Sexual Assault Prevention Response Office was working to overhaul training materials.
But SAPRO’s most recent report to Congress still seems to focus more on what victims could do to prevent the crimes. “While holding offenders appropriately accountable sends a strong deterrence message … further progress in reducing the prevalence of sexual assault can only come through prevention,” the annual update claims.
“It is not surprising with this institutional legacy, the Pentagon is still so opposed to fundamental reform that will hold perpetrators accountable, not shame victims,” Parish says, comparing current policies to the Army’s old pamphlet.
“A few years ago, it was a campaign called ‘Ask Her When She’s Sober,’” Parrish notes. Last year, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s sexual assault prevention program also put up a poster with the same sort of stock advice for potential victims.
“You do not see posters directing would-be rapists on ‘how not to rape,” Parrish laments. “Further, these tactics [continue to] represent the misogynistic view that only women can be raped, erasing nearly half of the victims of this crime who are men.”
In April, the Pentagon did update its strategy for fighting sexual violence across the armed services. “Sexual assaults continue to be under-reported” and there is a need to promote “mutual respect and trust,” the new plan admits.
“Sexually coercive behavior and inappropriate conduct … supports a ‘rape culture,’” adds a chart on how to communicate these goals.
The new guidelines highlight the importance of accountability. All of the services must also work hard to break the “acceptance of rape myths, victim blaming and [a] reluctance to become involved,” the policy document notes.
Unfortunately, “we still have much work to do before we are able to confidently say that this problem has been erased from our ranks,” Hagel concedes in the plan’s foreword.
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