Recent headlines have again brought attention to the pervasive and secretive nature of sexual assault. Although it may seem like Hollywood has a bigger problem than the rest of the country, this may not be the case.
Depending on which study you cite, roughly 20 percent of women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their life. Some studies report higher rates in the military.
Sexual assault is an insidious, repressive and violent act. It’s not only a physical violation, but one of the most vicious psychological betrayals one can suffer. Many victims battle a lifetime of shame, guilt and a host of other psychological problems.
Sexual assault is not just a crime against the individual. Its destructive nature also wreaks havoc on marriages and families. When perpetrated in the military, it creates chaos within a unit and reduces mission readiness and effectiveness.
Similar to domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide, prevention is a key part in addressing sexual assault. And military leaders are the first line of prevention.
Both overt and covert leadership behaviors can perpetuate the culture of “looking the other way.” A disinterested or dismissive attitude toward sexual assault within the unit is just as destructive as openly blaming or shaming a victim.
There are things you can do as a leader to stamp out sexual assault within the ranks. Here are three specific actions leaders at all levels can take to be part of the solution.
Check your blind spots. It’s difficult to correct behavior that’s outside your awareness. However, if you’re willing to engage in a bit of introspection, you can identify any blind spots you may have about sexual assault.
For example, do you believe the problem of sexual assault in the military is exaggerated or blown out of proportion? The data show that thousands of victims are sexually assaulted in the military each year. Do you tend to question the truthfulness of the victim he or she comes forward? The research does not support this perception; the vast majority of reported cases are sincere and legitimate.
Take training seriously. Each branch of service has required sexual assault training for its troops. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make sure this training takes place. It’s also your responsibility to make sure that the training is sincere and not a “check the box” activity that’s tasked to the lowest ranking member of the unit.
Troops know how serious command is about a topic based on who it asks to lead the training.
Correct bad behavior immediately. Hesitation is often an indication of disinterest. Even if it’s not meant as such, it most likely will be interpreted that way by others.
Once you are made aware of inappropriate behavior, take action immediately. There is no better way to demonstrate a zero-tolerance attitude than by acting swiftly and decisively.
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. He is the co-author of “The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook.” This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.