For a quarter century, as an airman and independent writer/commentator covering the Air Force, I’ve observed the arc of the service’s policy approach to the problem of sexual assault. I’ve also listened … to service leaders, subject matter experts, fellow commanding officers, fellow commentators, legal luminaries, and most importantly, rank-and-file airmen. The rant that follows is my modest attempt to channel the aggregate sense of those many voices, passed through the filter of my own opinion and worldview. I make no claim about the relevance or value of what follows, but hope you’ll read, consider, and react to it anyway. The Air Force must do better with this problem, and like many others, I have some ideas about how. Enjoy. -Q.
I recognize the hazard of including the word “manifesto” in the title of this comment, recommending to suspicion that the commenter is a raving lunatic. But to the extent the scrawls that follow exhibit insanity, it should be considered an accurate reflection of the current state of Air Force sexual assault policy.
If the Air Force were a live-action role-play of Apocalypse Now (which, on current heading, might be the case in a few years), its approach to sexual assault would be personified by Walter E. Kurtz, having acquired a rogue army conquering all it encounters with false righteousness, never considering whether its cause remains just or its methods remain sound. One might question, indeed, whether there is any method at all.
Until the endemically warped Kurtz is felled and his army scattered, the heart of the Air Force will remain dark, riven with intellectual chaos and emotional conflict as it betrays a larger sense of itself in the service of a misguided and illusory crusade. It has long since forgotten what that crusade started out to be. Means have become ends in themselves, and maintaining the movement itself is now the only noticeable objective of the movement. At least the only one not donning big, floppy clown shoes.
Sexual Assault, as an Air Force discussion, has become an elaborate lie often advanced by unwitting, zombified minions chanting in tones and phrases drawn from the increasingly annoying social justice lexicon. Rather than a genuine effort to solve a problem of criminality, it has devolved into a deranged summer camp serving of buzzword salad, with empowered officials competing to see who can achieve the most interesting sort of misshapen novelty in the effort to show everything is being done that can possibly be done. Kitchen sinks are constantly heaved to and fro.
Why such tactics? Because the generals now understand that if they don’t get their act together on this problem, their authority to handle crime and punishment could be severely constrained or taken away altogether. The Military Justice Improvement Act is the embodiment of that threat. Like the vending machine of Seinfeld lore, it didn’t tip over on the first attempt, but legislators continue to rock it back and forth, aided by a growing coalition of stakeholders and reformers with varying motives but a common skepticism about both the necessity of a separate military justice system and the ability of commanders to competently orchestrate it. Without a turnaround, a disastrous toppling is inevitable. When it happens, commanders of this generation will have been responsible for the dismantling of something it took their predecessors decades to painstakingly assemble.
For the Air Force, genuinely tackling sexual assault seems a remote possibility. This isn’t because generals don’t care enough or aren’t working hard on the issue. It’s because the service’s efforts to date have not established the proper policy foundation for constructive reform.
Rather than a precise, carefully devised, thoughtful approach, it has taken to carpet-bombing itself with endless propaganda, unproven training programs, and fortune-cookie rhetoric. It has made sexual assault prevention about everything, and therefore about nothing. It has made its messaging so repetitious, so valueless, and so annoying that airmen have become desensitized to it. The sexual assault message has become like an incessant altitude warning that activates too often … causing pilots to reflexively silence it rather than considering if it actually means anything.
Afloat in this morass of muddled managerial make-work are the airmen of the Air Force. [Oh yeah, them.] In a surreal paradox that affronts the sacred role of proper consent, they’re continually coerced into attending one circus act after another. Sexual assault karaoke. Sexual assault poetry slam. Sexual assault improv theater. Sexual assault standup comedy. These things misguidedly diminish the somberness of the problem, and do it with taxpayer funds to boot.
Each of these eyewash festivals also fuels the raging inferno of non-mission-related scheduling conflicts with which airmen perpetually contend. This perversely prevents them from attaining the kind of stability and routine upon which unit morale and cohesion necessarily stand. Thus, by constantly bombarding airmen with information (as distinct from knowledge) and unleashing upon them hordes of other non-negotiating time vampires, officials are disrupting unit commanders’ ability to cultivate tight-knit, exclusive, fiercely self-identifying and mutually supportive teams. You know … the kinds of teams that have extremely low rates of criminal conduct.
The effort is self-defeating, and the noise-to-signal ratio unacceptably high. Lost in all that noise is the fact that no one is truly, squarely addressing the problem of sexual assault in a way that will bake lasting change into the Air Force.
What follows is not a comprehensive solution. It’s a rant. I make no claim that it has merit, or that any merit it has will be evident at its surface. I claim only that given the shovel size and strength of constitution necessary to contend with the Air Force’s existing sexual assault approach, anyone situated to attempt a decoding of this rant will find any embedded usefulness comparatively easy to unearth, and its patina far less objectionable.
For what it’s worth, my belief is that no problem can be truly solved unless truth permeates the effort to solve it. In that spirit, I suggest, above all, clarity along the three main lines of effort that must comprise a strong policy: education, enforcement, and empathy.
First, Air Force leaders need to get a grip on the problem.
Sexual assault is a violent crime. Sexual harassment is not. The two are not on a continuum. They are completely separate. One is a matter of law enforcement, and the other is handled administratively. One is among the most grotesque methods of violence in the human catalog, and the other covers a broad array of possibly errant behaviors involving workplace boundaries and professional appropriateness.
These two things need to be immediately and clearly distinguished, disentangled, and distanced from one another. Here’s why.
Pretending that creepy glances, suggestive remarks, inappropriate offers or overtures, dirty jokes, movie quotes, song lyrics, video games, or other limitless forms of potentially inappropriate or edgy conduct necessarily lead to sexual assault is the domain of social engineers, rat psychologists, and “pre-cogs” from the movie Minority Report … not the domain of responsible commanding officers or policymakers.
Whether particular conduct constitutes sexual harassment depends heavily upon circumstances, context, and subjective determinations. Sexual assault, on the other hand, is a narrowly and specifically codified criminal act. When you conflate it with sexual harassment (or vagrancy, software piracy, or jaywalking), whatever policy solution you come up with will have to be enlarged and generalized to cover whatever you lumped into your novel definition. This will water down your policy solution and make it less focused than it needs to be.
If you’re designing a policy to prevent car theft, you ask yourself questions about car thieves, what motivates them, how to influence their decisions, and how to educate car owners to be less cooperative victims. You don’t include tire slashers, hubcap stealers, and spraypaint vandals in your analysis. Doing that would be dumb. It would likely cause you to over-focus on slashed tires and under-focus on stolen cars by diffusing resources across too broad a spectrum.
Such folly will also cause you to select the wrong tools with which to implement your policy, and that will mean collateral effects and unintended consequences likely to upend your objectives.
Ever try driving a nail back into place with a blowtorch? The wood gets burned and the nail still protrudes. Whatever you spent on the blowtorch was a total waste, and you’ve got plenty of time to think about that as you sheepishly amble over to the workbench to grapple for the hammer you should have chosen in the first place. Of course, when you try to drive the scorched nail with the hammer, it’s too brittle to handle a proper strike, and the charred, weakened wood behind it sheds ashes and gives way as you make the attempt. What you’re left with is a permanently damaged structure that must be totally replaced, and you’ve wasted time, acquired frustration, and experienced futility to reach this dubious position.
This is the trajectory of the current Air Force policy approach. Every off-color joke is treated as an inevitable precursor to a violent felony, and every set of circumstances that might give rise to sexual victimization is now regarded as a fait accompli justifying not only pre-emptive condemnation, but full-scale deployment of the fun police.
The result is an Air Force that is rapidly forgetting how to have fun. Work hard, play hard has given way to work hard, cocoon oneself in a protective, antiseptic, risk-free bubble while avoiding bad food, cigarettes, and loud noises.
Much of the dysfunction unfolding in the current environment stems from hyperbolic depictions of the problem. The Air Force, wittingly or unwittingly, portrays sexual assault as a raging epidemic of constantly multiplying trauma rippling through a service population teeming with violent skulks waiting for any chance to attack teammates. Airmen betraying a hint of sexual impulse are assumed to be predators-in-waiting, all the while reminded how much they are loved, valued, and admired as servants and wingmen. It is the stuff of which self-loathing is made.
The problem has been construed by some stakeholders – in a rendition silently adopted by morally timid officials who know better – as a problem of naïve, stumbling bambis preyed upon by secretly lycanthropic teammates lurking in the shadows of haunted-house squadrons and danger-ridden dorms … places overflowing with innuendo, indiscretion, and iniquity.
Most of the actual violence in this reckless shorthand is inflicted upon the truth. The Air Force has a problem with sexual assault. It impacts too many people, but it doesn’t impact nearly as many as the current breadth and intensity of chatter, focus, and resource commitment would indicate. The conceptualized version of the problem looms over its actuality like a cliff over a pebble.
Acting on this meme creates new and more exotic forms of dysfunction that will be even more difficult to understand and treat. Chief among these dysfunctions is the repression of normal behavior to avert the risk of the occasional abnormal behavior that sometimes grows in the same soil. The result is that abnormality simply relocates, because after all, weeds can grow in any soil. Meanwhile, normalcy dies for good, leaving only vacancy and barrenness where character, teamwork, and a thriving culture once lived.
Before you tell me airmen aren’t confused about the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment, go do a little field research. Ask ten random airmen to explain the difference. If even one can’t do it clearly and succinctly, consider that you’ve failed. In just the last 30 days, I’ve personally seen evidence that airmen believe “mandatory reporting” requirements applicable to sexual assault complaints also apply to instances of inappropriate commentary or subjectively suspected sexual harassment.
To the extent they’re confused, it should come as no surprise. It’s not that the pendulum has swung too far in an attempt to fix the problem. It’s that it’s the wrong pendulum. Internal propaganda efforts at rates and intensities that would make Stalin blush with envy have created an inexorable association between anything vaguely sexual and assumed impropriety, if not criminality.
Before you put a bow on leader education and start educating the field, take a look at the data.
Between 2010 and 2014, the Air Force documented 209 court martial convictions in cases that began as sexual assault prosecutions. This means that even if every case involved one airman assaulting another, just over 100 airmen per year could be seen as having been either a victim or perpetrator of sexual assault. The average size of the Air Force over that time was about 333,000 active duty airmen, meaning that around three tenths of a percent of airmen were directly impacted.
Now, of course, these numbers don’t demonstrate the entire problem. Many assaults don’t get reported and many others don’t make it to court. These problems of underreporting and underservicing should be prime policy emphasis areas. But even if the actual problem is 100 times worse than conviction rates demonstrate, it directly impacts around 3% of the service. This is roughly the same as the percentage of Air Force women estimated to have been sexually assaulted in the prior year by RAND’s 2014 Military Workplace Study.
This is worth internalizing, not just because of the various ways the solution set stands to be mangled by haphazardly roping 97% more airmen into the problem, but because such mangling could actually alienate some of those 97%, and without broad emotional loyalty to the solution set, it stands no chance.
Of course, this isn’t the only counterintuitive revelation lurking in the conviction data. A majority of cases do not involve alcohol. Only a small number occur in the dorms. A tiny number involve a supervisor-subordinate relationship. Many convictions reported in the data set labeled “Air Force Sexual Assault Court Martial Convictions” were actually for crimes ultimately deemed non-sexual in nature. Many victims weren’t airmen, but dependents or other civilians. Cases of child pornography, child abuse, and indecent exposure were included in the data, ostensibly to grow the denominator as large as possible even though these cases are distinct from the problem of sexual assault as depicted by service leaders. The data and the constantly revisited meme are totally alien to one another.
This isn’t to throw water on the data or to suggest the problem should be casually minimized. In fact, that’s the exact mode of ignorance that kept the service from acting to address sexual assault before it faced a crisis of diminished authority. The point is to encourage precise thinking about the problem, which leads to credible solutions that rally support in lieu of fantastical circus performances that turn people off.
If there’s one commonly notable intersection between the RAND study, the Air Force conviction data, and the otherwise muddled approach to sexual assault education the Air Force has thus far undertaken, it’s confusion about the issue of consent. Many cases involve disputed claims about whether consent was granted for sex, and/or whether it could have been lawfully granted under the circumstances.
The Air Force owes its airmen a clear and certain education on this aspect of the problem. That education should be mostly an explanation of the law and how that law has been applied by courts and commanders. This will not totally crystallize the issue, because there is no legal or social consensus totally resolving consent either in the Air Force or in society at large. But a sound education in the law governing consent will alert airmen to where things are clear and where there is inescapable ambiguity. It is from that zone of ambiguity that some cases arise, although many if not most are less about mistaken signals and more about premeditated victimization.
But when you teach the law, don’t send the lawyers. And don’t send the SARCs. Send the commanders. Make them learn and teach the law of sexual assault to their airmen. If they can’t or won’t do so effectively enough, find other commanders who will. Stop abdicating the duty to lead by in-sourcing this issue to supposed experts. They don’t know the people of a unit. They don’t understand how those people think or how they best absorb information. Commanders know that stuff, or they should. Commanders should be teaching this material, and if it’s too complex to be left to them, that’s a clue that you’ve over-complicated things.
If your urgency in addressing sexual assault is driven by a desire to keep the issue within the chain of command, then demonstrate that the chain of command is capable of handling it. Use the chain of command or lose it.
Prevention starts with enforcement. If you’re serious about stomping out sexual assault, hire investigators and lawyers who specialize in it. Recruit from the top law schools. Spend the money for advanced training and education for those who will lead the charge. Stop firing lawyers as part of the drawdown. Perpetrators and victims need to know that when there is a complaint, it’ll be addressed swiftly and surely, not entered into a ledger for eventual attention after the next several fitness-related discharge boards.
Publicize convictions. Make sure potential perpetrators are reminded about the consequences if they fail to control their criminal impulses. If you’re working on a deterrence theory, remember that deterrence is a communication about the potential costs of a course of action. For it to work, the intended recipient must hear the message.
Right now, if I click on the link that’s supposed to provide sexual assault conviction data, it says “Update Pending” (and has said that for a while now). That’s unacceptable. Provide the data that exists while awaiting the update. Oh, and tell commanders the link exists so they can advertise it. I asked seven commanders about the existence of this data, and only one knew where to (try to) find it. If you’re not proud of your paltry conviction rate, fix it. But meantime, maximize the leverage you’ve got. It beats idle preaching.
While you’re at it, stop repressing normal conduct. It closes down communication, which makes the job easier for predators. It isolates victims. It reduces reporting, which further emboldens predators to act without fear of consequences. Stop worrying about Dallas Cowboy cheerleader photos, bikini shots from family vacation, and 1940s nose art lithographs. These are normal cultural artifacts. When you sexualize these things, you create a lifeless, characterless, colorless, endless eggshell walk for everyone, and that runs counter to your goals of open communication and noticeable signals that someone is suffering from victimization or teetering on the edge of criminality.
While you’re at it, stop demonizing alcohol. Abstinence is the empty set in this equation and has been for at least 10,000 years. Law enforcement resources wasted on penny ante booze violations are unavailable for the swift investigation and prosecution of more serious crimes like sexual assault. The more you preach against drinking, the more airmen will seek opportunities to defy you. That’s the nature of a freedom-loving people, and heaven help us if that instinct is ever extinguished.
Instead, de-mystify drinking. This takes much of the thrill out of it. Be pragmatic. Tolerate drinking in the dorms. Don’t ignore underage drinking when you discover it, but don’t go looking for it either. Assume that it will happen regardless of your policies, and silently hope that it happens on base, in a relatively safe environment, with teammates, and subject to periodic sweeps that keep airmen on notice and reinforce safety.
Treat people like adults. Don’t punish or try to control their human nonlinearity. Instead, punish the adverse consequences that sometimes result from it, if and when they occur. This is the line dividing low and high expectations.
Why do these last few paragraphs matter? Because when you cultivate healthy squadrons comprised of mutually supportive teammates and high conduct expectations, you gain a persistent enforcement capability without adding more resources. Squadron members who work hard and play hard together look out for one another as real wingmen, not those starring in the contemporary corporate caricature. Encourage authentic bonding, and you’ll discover new channels and capabilities for prevention, reporting, and enforcement.
While some of the difficulty in securing convictions is baked into the evidentiary realities of the crime itself, some of it is tied to the reluctance of victims to step forward and file a complaint. This is the part of the problem most assailable, because it theoretically benefits from the unique advantages of the military context.
Distinct from a civilian context, airmen are part of a team with key commonalities and a shared sense of purpose. They’re members of a global support network. They’re sworn to die for one another if the circumstances require it. This should mean that airmen are more willing to report assault than their civilian counterparts. But that hasn’t been the case, and it grows from a failure of empathy in the chain of command.
How does a chain of command demonstrate empathy?
Resources. Have enough lawyers on staff to provide a Special Victim Counsel (SVC) whenever one is requested. The Air Force fired a bunch of lawyers in the 2014 drawdown, including a large number who were serving as SVCs. At the time of the layoffs, there were already too few SVCs to go around. Getting rid of a single one was the wrong move and should be swiftly reversed.
But beyond that, commanders need to try hard to put themselves in the shoes of victims and imagine the myriad ways a complaint can backfire or catalyze new trauma. When victims are taken seriously and shielded from retribution, harassment, official retaliation, or blame for what happened to them, this is a signal to other victims. The result is more reporting and more enforcement. The result of that is deterrence.
But the opposite also holds true. If victims are punished for collateral conduct (“we’ll go after your rapist, but here’s a career-ending reprimand for underage drinking”) or otherwise maltreated, this chills their willingness to report and gives predators frightful leverage.
To the Air Force’s credit, it has been working to field programs that help commanders put distance between victims and assailants in the wake of a complaint. The impulse is perfect, and the follow-through will be just as important. One question the Air Force must always ask of any SAPR policy is how the service’s personnel system will aid or disrupt implementation. With the director of the service’s SAPR office set to become its next chief human resource manager, there is reason to think this question will get the right kind of attention.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Educate, enforce, and empathize. Know the law, visibly enforce the law, and authentically connect with and shield victims. Reporting and deterrence are the engines powering prevention, and education keeps it driving on the paved surface.
Beyond these streamlined objectives, drop “all-in, double down, go for broke” approach. No more comedy routines, karaoke sessions, infantile videos, or improv sessions. Keep the issue couched firmly in the realm of criminal law and enforcement. Keep it appropriately serious. Don’t muddle it, water it down, or joke about it.
Sexual assault is a violent felony, not a “culture” or a “tendency” or a “phenomenon.” Keep the language clear to keep the issue clear. Make people aware of alternative outlets to grow and develop a more robust understanding of the crime of sexual assault, but don’t make those outlets mandatory. Given the incidence rate described above, which is still unacceptable, many airmen and many units will never experience this crime. Beating them over the head with it anyway is a great way to make them think both you and the issue you’re championing are overblown and therefore unserious.
Get at the issue of consent without expanding the concept of sexual assault to include every ambivalent, booze-fueled, or regrettable sexual encounter ever undertaken. When you find yourself implying that intoxicated sex equals assault, you’re being absurd and losing credibility. Don’t pretend that even the most zealous prevention program can surmount human nature. You will have violators and predators no matter what, so your task is to make the environment unwelcome in the hope that their internal struggle to control their criminal impulses will resolve in your favor, or that you’ll dissuade them from acting on those impulses for fear of the consequences. At the same time, punishing and repressing normal conduct creates an environment welcome to dysfunction. When the social contours of a community aren’t normal, they’ll be abnormal by definition.
Grow good judgment in young people like you would grow a lawn. Nurture judgment by letting it grow, even if it doesn’t look quite right as a seedling. Crowd the weeds out rather than killing them chemically, which also kills healthy grass as a collateral effect.
But here’s the closing flourish. Maybe the reason you have a sexual assault problem is the same reason you have other problems: mismanagement of resources, time, and manpower. If you make squadron life sustainable, every problem – to include this one – will get easier because squadrons are much better than headquarters agencies at solving problems. And you guessed it, the more unsustainable squadron life becomes, the less any bureaucratic solution will matter.
Now of course, I get that this issue is inextricably tied up in politics, and that this pushes the Air Force to make sure there’s an obvious public face on its efforts. But if you actually, genuinely care about solving this problem rather than simply appearing to do so (and I truly believe that’s the case), it’s time to acknowledge that the public campaign is getting in the way. Imprecision, junk science, and propaganda are preventing substantial progress in the ways that matter, and damaging the fabric of the service in the process.
Fortunately, the chain of command is all you need to turn things around. Use it … or you will almost assuredly lose it.