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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s sexual assault crisis will be solved only when troops treat sexist remarks with the same disdain as racial slurs, the officer in charge of preventing the crime told USA Today Tuesday.
Sexism and harassment in the military have created a “permissive environment” in which sexual assaults can occur, said Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office.
“It’s the climate of dignity and respect where there are no instances where sexual harassment, sexist behavior, sexual assault are tolerated,” Patton said. “How will we know when we get there? We’ll know when we get there when a sexist remark is treated with the same absolute disdain and visceral response as a racist slur is today in the military. We have a ways to go to get to that point. But that is when we’ll know we’re there when that degree of culture change takes place.”
Inspections ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to remove sexually explicit and degrading materials should be done by July, Patton said.
Patton also branded as “despicable” the social media posts that depict female Marines in sexually degrading ways and said an effort is underway to target such material.
“That type of stuff is despicable,” Patton said. “It’s not acceptable. And that’s exactly the type of offensive and degrading materials that are unacceptable in a unit that prides itself on our professional values and on unit cohesion. That is the opposite of that.”
Patton spoke about the posts targeting Marine women and the House member who brought them to light, the need to change military culture to eliminate sexism in the ranks and the recent scandals that have rocked the military. Last week, Patton’s office released a survey of military personnel that estimated there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012, a 35% increase over 2010.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., raised the issue of the Facebook page “F’N Wook,” which showed photos of Marine women with lewd captions, in a letter to Hagel and Marine Corps Commandant James Amos. Facebook took down the page, but similar content has reappeared, some of it targeting Speier.
Speier said she shares “Gen. Amos and Maj. Gen. Patton’s outrage, but the military has been saying they have ZERO tolerance for years. We need clear actions that reflect this position, not just more words. The Marine Corps policies without a doubt prohibit this conduct; heads need to roll.”
Degrading materials, Patton said, “do not promote dignity and respect for our fellow servicemembers,” he said. “That inspection has been directed and it will take place in the next weeks and months.”
The military will rely on commanders — at ranks as low as sergeant — to make sure subordinates know that sexist behavior is unacceptable off duty as well.
“That’s where we need to continue to educate our front-line leaders so they’re out there extra vigilant on this sort of thing,” Patton said. “So that you know when some soldier is out there who is prone to this type of behavior in their off duty. That kind of stuff has got to stop, and I’m going to hold you accountable for that because that’s not acceptable.”
Eliminating sexism and sexual harassment, such as that depicted against Marine women, is necessary to get at the root of the problem, Patton said. Sexist behavior helps create the “permissive environment” in which sexual assault occurs, he said.
“There is a correlation between sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Patton said. “People who indicated by the survey that they had been sexually assaulted, the majority of those, men and women, also indicated that they had been sexually harassed.”
The Pentagon has been hit by a series of high-profile sexual abuse scandals. One of the latest involves Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who led the Air Force office in charge of sexual abuse prevention until his arrest May 5 for allegedly groping a woman in Arlington, Va. He has a trial date in July.
“We recognize we have a persistent problem with sexual assault in our military,” Patton said. “And we know we have to do more. The Krusinski case, if those allegations prove true, would point out that we know we have more to do at every level of the military.”