Breaking the Sexual Assault Stalemate

July 1, 2014

The Air Force’s internal war on sexual assault has proved stubborn. Despite all the prevention programs, re-education efforts, and structural changes, the most recent prevalence survey showed the percentage of airmen being victimized had hardly budged. The 2012 survey indicated some 3,200 airmen—three percent of females and 0.5 percent of males—suffered unwanted sexual contact in the preceding year alone.

“That has been pretty consistent over time,” said Brig. Gen. Gina M. Grosso, director of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at the Pentagon. All told, one in five female airmen reported having been sexually assaulted since enlisting. One bright spot is that more and more victims are reporting offenses, theoretically bringing more perpetrators to justice, Grosso noted.

Misconduct at the Air Force Academy in 2003 triggered the beginning of the service’s elevated fight. However, recently, “we realized we have done a lot, but we are not seeing any change in outcome,” said Grosso in an interview. Until last year, four people on the Air Staff oversaw the service’s entire SAPR efforts. Officials decided this wasn’t enough, and in 2013 stood up the office that Grosso now oversees. It reports directly to the Air Force vice chief of staff.

“I think the work that’s happened over the last two years is tremendous,” said Grosso. The new office, initially headed by Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, boasts its own team of experts, including a judge advocate, mental health specialist, Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent, curriculum advisor, policy team, and public affairs section. As a result, it is “able to coalesce things” in a way that was previously impossible, said Grosso.

Up until the last few years, changes were “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” she said. With the injection of resources and better integration, she thinks the Air Force will finally “be able to get to that next level.”

The strategy in the short term is to boost reporting and prosecution. In Grosso’s opinion, the only way to prevent future offenses is to identify predators “and in my view, kick them out of the Air Force,” which she acknowledged, isn’t easy. While reporting is already on the rise, comparing actual reports to the most recent survey numbers shows that only one-third of offenses are ever brought to light. “We cannot figure out who committed the crime and get them out of the force if we don’t have people reporting,” said Grosso.

In these cases, officials’ hands are tied. What the Air Force has done, though, is significantly strengthen its ability to investigate and prosecute offenses that are reported. In March 2013, a single agency, AFOSI, took over investigating all allegations of sexual assault within the Air Force’s ranks. In the past, AFOSI only probed the high-end violent crimes like rape. Lesser allegations fell to base security forces. The previous system was a “very complicated matrix” of agencies that risked letting offenders slip through the cracks, said Grosso. “It’s very helpful now to have one law enforcement arm investigating all of these,” she explained.

AFOSI recently established a special victims unit comprising 24 full-time civilian agents dedicated to probing sexual accusations. These agents train side-by-side with a corps of judge advocates general who receive additional specialized training to effectively team with their AFOSI colleagues. A handful of experienced so-called super prosecutors receive additional training in sexual assault. The combined result is “we’re getting better at that cohesive work between OSI doing the investigation and the JAG prosecuting” the cases in court, said Grosso.

The Air Force also recently lowered the standards of evidence required to send sexual assault cases to trial “so that more cases would go to court,” said Grosso. Holding more courts-martial is “not a bad thing,” she said, especially since not all of them end in conviction.

Another new policy requires commanders to automatically start discharge paperwork on anyone admitting to sexual assault or having substantiated claims leveled against him or her, even without a judicial proceeding. “It doesn’t mean you’ll be discharged, but you start the process,” explained Grosso.

On the flip side, officials upped aid to victims, adding more sexual assault response coordinators and funding 90 new on-base victim advocates across the service. “Over time, we have increasingly put more resources to this issue, but we have to get our prevalence down,” stressed Grosso. Despite high-profile media coverage of misconduct at basic military training in the past several years, the Air Force still “has the lowest prevalence by far” of any service branch, lower even than the US population at large at last count, she said.

“Trust me, I’m not claiming victory” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III in an April 2014 speech in Washington, D.C. “We’ll celebrate when the number is zero, and I don’t think that will happen in the human domain.”

Airmen are “taught to trust the people who wear our uniform,” Grosso said, so the numbers are still far too high for a cohesive combat team.

Identifying Predators

The long-term aim is to diminish the prevalence of sexual assault, preferably by barring would-be offenders from ever joining the ranks. Since the armed forces already screen and exclude applicants for reasons ranging from weight to past drug use and gang-related tattoos, the idea isn’t outlandish. Grosso said there is good evidence that many predators freely self-report, when responding to well-crafted questions, thus saving the Air Force from having to deal with them.

University of Massachusetts, Boston, researcher David Lisak conducted a survey of 1,800 male university students. Instead of asking if they had ever raped a woman, he posed a series of questions about the students’ sexual behavior. “It turns out that, because these men don’t see these things as rape, they readily admit to it,” said Grosso. The Air Force primarily recruits young people from the same age demographic of 18 to 25 year olds as most of the students surveyed. In this study, “two-thirds of those men [identified as sexual predators] turned out to be serial rapists,” she said, and the Air Force has no reason to believe its recruiting pool is any different. “The vast majority of these men never get prosecuted because they don’t get caught, and I just don’t want to bring them in” to begin with.

Grosso said she would like to find a way to embed some of the same questions Lisak asked in his study into the Air Force’s entry screening. “If we could somehow find a way to ask every recruit, ‘Have you done this?’ … which we define as sexual assault [then], … I just don’t assess you, because you’ve already committed a crime,” she said, although she emphasized that this idea is still somewhat controversial and by no means policy yet.

Studying ways of screening for potential predators is new, but service officials have already joined forces with a slew of experts, and over the next year, “we’re going to take a hard look at that,” said Grosso. Even the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, which normally tackles science and technology, is joining the fight to understand and deal with sexual assault. “These folks are big-time engineers and they don’t tend to do social science work. In fact, they’ve never done a social science project” before now, she said. As a result, AFSAB is bringing new tools and a fresh perspective and “doing some really cool work,” said Grosso.

Sexual Psyops

The most difficult and important battlefield is arguably airmen’s hearts and minds, and Grosso’s office is working to standardize the message and curriculum across the force. The goal is ensuring airmen “know immediately what the expectations are” for them as well as their leaders from the time they enlist, throughout their entire career, she said. Hand in hand with these efforts, officials at JBSA Lackland, Texas, are trimming a week off of basic military training, making room for a week-long values seminar before shipping new airmen off to technical school.

“We’re going to do a top-off course that gets to core values, ethics, sexual assault prevention, [and] bystander intervention” to integrate airmen into the operational culture without the “extreme imbalance of power” trainees have with instructors at BMT, she said.

Educating airmen to identify precarious situations and take action to prevent harm is a huge recent effort. “We spent significant time and energy on this bystander intervention training and we used, literally, the industry experts to help us build” outstanding curriculum, said Grosso. Unfortunately, “I can train you all I want,” she said, but “for an airman to actually intervene, we just find is a very hard task” that is far from assured. “I think there are a lot of things people would like to believe they would do, … but when you’re actually faced with that situation, can you?”

Indications are airmen could be helping each other much better than they are, possibly because key parts of the message aren’t always getting through. “When you’re training a group of people and you tell them [actions can lead] from a sexual joke to rape, they just think that’s ridiculous, and they shut off” despite the research bearing this out, said Grosso. “They get a negative impression of your message. It’s not even neutral,” she said.

The Air Force hasn’t been able yet to thoroughly evaluate the effectiveness of its SAPR initiatives, something Grosso said she’s pushing hard to improve. With the huge number of structural changes, new programs, and training over the last few years, “what we really haven’t done well is assess,” she said.

Early feedback, however, has shown that airmen clearly are not receptive to the use of computer-based training (CBT) modules—which the Air Force routinely uses to instruct airmen—for this purpose. “The feedback’s been loud and clear: no CBTs,” said Grosso. On the other hand, unvarnished small group discussions really do seem to work. “The more frank the training, the more receptive airmen are to it,” she said.

That includes discussing and demystifying even disturbing and violent crimes, up to and including rape. “[I] can’t stand having to talk about penetrating crimes,” Grosso said, but leaders, too, have to overcome this aversion and “be able to talk frankly about this crime, who commits it, and what it is” to begin preventing it.