Should rape victims "submit"?

Air Force brochure says it may be "advisable." Believe it or not, it's the least of the military's problems

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 8, 2013 9:35PM (EDT)

     (Facebook/United States Air Force)
(Facebook/United States Air Force)

Of all the surprising, jaw-dropping and infuriating things that have happened in recent weeks regarding the military and rape, this was hardly the worst of the lot. In fact, it might have even been common sense. It just happened to arrive in the midst of a whole lot of garbage. That's why the news this week that an "Air Force Brochure Tells Sexual Assault Victims to 'Submit'" seemed at once so shocking – and so goddamn typical.

The Air Force advice isn't quite so cut and dried as the Wired headline first appears. Instead, it comes within Shaw Air Force Base's literature on "Sexual Assault Prevention and Response" – specifically what to do in the event of an attack. "It may be advisable to submit rather than resist," it reads. "You have to make this decision based on circumstances. Be especially careful if the attacker has a weapon."

The brochure offers other "risk reduction" hints on how to "be careful" in a variety of scenarios, and describes how rapists often target those who "are young (naïve)" or "emotionally unstable." And as RawStory notes, "There are no instructions in the brochure advising service members to not commit sexual assault. Each suggestion listed puts the responsibility for avoiding assault or rape on victims." The advocacy group Protect Our Defenders Brian Purchia told Wired Tuesday that the brochure is "an affront to victims," adding, "The Air Force should be passing out pamphlets to our men and women in uniform on how not to commit sexual assault. This brochure is just the latest in a long history of failed programs and policies. The military's sexual assault prevention campaigns are rooted in a wrongheaded 1950s paradigm."

The brochure was disclosed at an embarrassing time -- the same week that Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, was charged with sexual battery. Krusinski allegedly "approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks." And that story arrived the same day that  the Pentagon released the shocking data that an estimated "26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted in unreported incidents last year — 35 percent more than in 2010."

That collection of awful news was exacerbated when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III shrugged off the fact that 20 percent of women report being sexually assaulted "before they came into the military," adding, "So they come in from a society where this occurs. Some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it."

Way to minimize rape, deflect responsibility AND throw in a healthy measure of victim-blaming there, sir. Quite an accomplishment!

The comment, which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand quickly called "outrageous," had echoes of the casual disregard and "What'd you expect?" rhetoric that former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla described in her Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March. She testified that when she had been sexually assaulted and sought counsel from her Army chaplain, he "told me — among other things — that the rape was God’s will and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church."

The fact that the U.S. military still seems to refuse to get the magnitude of its problem is beyond infuriating. That it's peddling pamphlets advising what potential victims need to do to fend off attackers while talking about rape in "various dating scenes" in a "lively and humorous way" and gently advising men that their responsibility in preventing rape is to simply "Ask Her When She’s Sober" suggests a massive blind spot to say the least. So it's easy to see how, in the midst of all that idiocy, the advice to "submit" would stand out as yet another example of the military telling victims to just accept abuse. In Reason, J.D. Tuccille called it "a hell of a bit of advice," the kind that would appeal to a man who would "probably very much like his victims on the submissive side."

As Liz Roberts of Safe Horizon, the country's largest victims' services agency explains, "It is interesting when you look at it within the context of the larger story." Yet sexual assault and extreme violence do often go hand in hand. In a situation where a victim may have to choose, in the moment, how to get out alive, the option of fighting back may not always be possible. Roberts adds, "We do a lot of community education on sexual assault, and we'll now and then be asked, 'How can I protect myself?' The advice we give first and foremost is that you never know how you're going to react. It's not something you can necessary anticipate. How you respond in the moment is so driven by the specific situation. There are times when fighting back is the right thing to do and is successful and effective; there are times when it may escalate the situation. Only a survivor knows."

The main problem with the Shaw Air Force Base brochure isn't that it acknowledges that a victim may decide the safest option is to not attempt to fend off an assault. It's that it pretends that rape is something one needs to be on the alert for while walking down the street or getting into a car, not, say, while dealing with one's colleagues, friends and superiors. "It is a well established fact that the overwhelming majority of the time, sexual assault happens between people who know each other," says Roberts. "The brochure perpetuates the myth that it's the stranger in the bushes." It's not that the advice in it isn't helpful or right. It's that it is not nearly comprehensive or realistic enough.

The military needs far more dramatic measures. It needs to acknowledge that rape happens between people who know each other. And it needs, desperately, to create a culture of accountability. Roberts says she'd like to see materials that acknowledge, "There's often harassment, suggestive comments, a period building up" before sexual assault. And to tell its personnel, as she says, "You can prevent assault when people can come forward safely. That help is available. That you don't have to put up with abuse. And it's not your fault."


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Air Force Jeffrey Krusinski Kirsten Gillibrand Rape In The Military Sexual Assault