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Getting After Sexual Assault the Right Way

What the military can learn from West Point

Author: Jeanne Hull
June 13, 20013
National Security Forum

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Sexual assault in the military has received unprecedented levels of attention since the release of the "Invisible War" last year. Under pressure from the country's leadership and public, military and civilian leaders have since devoted substantial time and energy analyzing the problem and developing educational programs and punitive measures to prevent and deter the behavior. Though sexual assault and battery are indeed deplorable, too much emphasis and energy spent on finding effective measures of countering the worst cases reduces the amount of time and effort commanders can spend developing solutions to the wider problem of sexual harassment and misconduct. Overemphasis on harsh penalties across the spectrum of offenses also limits the means commanders have to adjudicate the less serious cases, to the detriment of the entire military institution.

When I was the Cadet Deputy Brigade Commander at West Point in 1999 (the number two leadership position among 4000 cadets), my duties included working with the varsity athletic team captains. One day the captain of the women's soccer team came to me with a complaint that the men's hockey team was throwing food at the women on the soccer team in the cadet dining facility. Despite my efforts to work with the hockey team leadership to resolve the issue, the food-throwing and verbal harassment continued. I subsequently recommended that the men's hockey team tables be closed for the remainder of the academic year. The West Point leadership, after conferring with the staff at the dining facility and the hockey team coaches, closed the hockey team tables. For the next four or five months until graduation, I was electronically harassed and vilified behind my back from a number of male cadets who were either on the hockey team or knew of the incident. Unspecified cadets put stink bombs in my room, stole my laundry bag, and even had two Army Majors on the West Point staff informally counsel me. With indulgent smiles and the "boys will be boys" cliché, these officers expressed genuine concern for how my actions on this matter would alienate me from my peers and adversely affect my career as an officer. The debacle made my last semester at the academy pretty miserable, even with wide support from my female peers and some of the male cadets I worked with.

Fast forward ten years to when I returned to the Academy as an academic instructor. One of my male students approached me after class and surprised me by asking me to be his mentor for the Cadet Respect program. The cadet in question had used a derogatory term for a female cadet towards one of his female peers, and she reported the incident to her chain of command. Those cadets and officers she spoke to took that report very seriously. In addition to receiving a severe punishment for the offense under the Cadet Disciplinary Code, the male cadet's graduation was made contingent on the successful completion of an intense mentorship program involving his tactical officer and an outside field grade officer. The mentorship program required him to maintain a journal containing the lessons he was learning in the course of the program and meet with me on a regular basis to discuss the journal entries and his progress. I was amazed at the transformation this cadet underwent over four months of this Cadet Respect program – he transitioned from blaming the female cadet for his actions to accepting responsibility for his own behavior. He also identified some of the factors that led him to make the derogatory comment in the first place, which included alcohol abuse and a circle of friends that promoted immature, puerile behavior towards female cadets and women more generally. Over the course of the mentorship program, the cadet received treatment for alcohol abuse, distanced himself from that circle of friends, and, on his own initiative, met with the woman he insulted to apologize and discuss his transformation. All of us on his Cadet Respect mentorship team recommended that he graduate on time, and he did – he remains in the Army as a junior leader today, and one better prepared to recognize, treat, and prevent sexual assault and harassment in his unit.

Though these episodes are hardly the stuff of the "Invisible War," they illustrate how an institution can transition from a culture averse to countering sexual harassment to a more constructive approach. After my encounter as a cadet, I was reluctant to come forward about incidents of harassment I experienced or observed, preferring to address those problems myself or through informal channels. What I did not realize at the time is that sexual harassment—even minor incidents—can be indicators of greater cultural and command climate problems which, if untreated, ultimately lead to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault. From my experience mentoring the male cadet, I learned that early identification and appropriate response to lesser incidents of sexual harassment can positively impact attitudes and behaviors of the military's junior leaders and eventually initiate the "cultural change" our nation's military and civilian leaders are presently clamoring for.

I also learned that overly harsh punishments can have the opposite intended effect and can be detrimental to the institution as a whole. Severe responses to relatively minor incidents of sexual harassment tend to leave Soldiers with three impressions: 1) that the target of the harassment was more at fault than the offender, 2) that the punishment did not fit the crime and, thus, 3) that reporting sexual harassment prematurely ends careers of otherwise potentially promising young leaders – leaders who could have learned better lessons from the experience and, in doing so, benefited themselves and the greater institution. None of these outcomes is useful to a professional military that invests considerable time and money training, educating and developing impressionable young men and women to be its future leaders.

I am concerned about the tone and perspective of the current discussion and debate on sexual assault in the military. To begin with, the increase in the number of reported incidents of sexual assault is a positive indicator as well as a negative one. On the positive side, the increase indicates that the intense education and training the military has instituted on the topic over the last 12-15 months is working – Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have a better understanding of how to recognize and report incidents of sexual harassment and assault. The increase in numbers is also a sign that members of the military feel much more comfortable reporting the incidents with less fear of retribution. Whether those reporting the incidents believe their concerns will be addressed is a separate issue, and not one currently addressed by the statistics thrown about in the public realm.

Secondly, I am concerned that undue focus on sexual assault adjudication only addresses the end state of the larger challenge military leaders face. The public debate centers on prosecution for the most severe cases of sexual assault—those involving battery and rape. It does not address how to better approach the greater spectrum of sexual misconduct. This spectrum of offenses ranges from sexual harassment to fraternization and improper relationships to inappropriate touching –all behaviors that are potential forerunners to sexual assault and, like sexual assault, are detrimental to unit cohesion and mission readiness. Excessive focus on the most serious cases skews public perception and detracts from the military's ability to provide young leaders with tools—like the intensive mentorship program I participated in at West Point—to better identify and see to these lesser infractions.

I applaud West Point's response to the incidents of sexual harassment instituted by men on their varsity rugby team this spring. The Academy's reaction to a report of sexual harassment is consistent with what I observed three years ago, not a knee-jerk overreaction to a hot-button issue. Moreover, the penalties imposed were harsh enough to send a message, specifically tailored to address the behavior and attitudes of each individual young leader, and not so severe as to detract from the real issues at hand. I suspect that a good portion of the senior cadets on the rugby team who just graduated have learned a valuable lesson and will be more capable of identifying sexual harassment and developing appropriate responses to the problem as junior leaders. Both the cadets and the Army will benefit from the experience in the long run.

The Army and the military can learn a lot from West Point about instituting cultural change. Military leaders should focus on developing and implementing better mechanisms for junior leaders and commanders to use to identify and correct minor infractions of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. These tools should be punitive, but afford select perpetrators— primarily junior officers and enlisted personnel—the opportunity to learn and recover from these incidents so they can be better military leaders in the future. Those that fail to respond to mentorship or similar programs can then be separated from the service well before they commit any serious criminal behavior.

So, while I believe successful adjudication for sexual assaults is important, the military's approach to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct is even more critical to the institution's long-term success. The true test of any programs designed to counter these behaviors will occur as women are incorporated into specialties that were previously only open to men. If commanders at all levels are not properly equipped to recognize and manage the inevitable minor incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct that will occur with the integration of women in these units, they will only amplify a persistent problem in American military culture.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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