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Protect Our Defenders: Pulled Shaw brochure puts responsibility on victim

Jul. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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A sexual assault prevention brochure at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., was yanked after a lawmaker objected to advice that victims submit to an attack rather than resist.

The pamphlet listed dozens of tips on how to reduce the risk of sexual assault at home, in a car and while outside walking or jogging, as well as ways to arm yourself against date rape drugs. If attacked, it said, first “keep your head, stay calm, evaluate your resources and options.” Next: “It may be advisable to submit than resist. You have to make this decision based on circumstances. Be especially careful if the attacker has a weapon.”

On May 14, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., sent a copy of the brochure to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and director of the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention and response office, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton. She said the brochure included “victim-blaming and inappropriate messages,” and asked for a review of all SAPRO materials.

In a June 20 response, Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said she, Hagel and Patton shared the congresswoman’s concerns. The Air Force “has withdrawn the brochure from circulation,” Wright wrote.

“No servicemember wearing the uniform of the United States military should ever be told, ‘It may be advisable to submit than to resist’ in the case of a sexual assault,” Slaughter said in a July 9 statement. “I am cautiously optimistic about the Pentagon’s agreement to review all sexual assault prevention materials.”

Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault, took issue with the wording.

“The military’s prevention programs too often put the responsibility on the victims to avoid being attacked when what they really ought to be focused on is creating a climate where harassment is not acceptable, perpetrators are effectively punished, and victims are appropriately supported rather than suffering retribution as they often do now,” Nancy Parrish, POD president, said in a statement.

“We will know they are making progress when we see perpetrators effectively prosecuted, commanders who tolerate hostile environments being cashiered. Until then, no amount of brochures or PowerPoint presentations are really going to make a difference,” she said.

Shaw came under fire late last year after Technical Sgt. Jennifer Smith complained repeatedly within her chain of command about sexually explicit materials she found on a computer server accessible by hundreds of airmen: songs with titles like “Sit on My Face” and “Bye, Bye Cherry” and a rhyme called the “The S&M Man” describing the graphic mutilation of women.

When her complaints were ignored, Smith filed a complaint with the Inspector General and Air Force leadership. Protect Our Defenders took up the cause, publishing the materials on its website. In December, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh ordered a servicewide sweep of all workspaces and public areas to get rid of it and other items like calendars and images that objectify women. Parrish attributed the inspection to Smith’s highly publicized complaint.

Similar advice elsewhere

The Shaw brochure tells attack victims to “stay alert and observant so that you can describe the attacker and assault,” and urges women to report the incident as soon as possible. It includes a number for the sexual assault response coordinator.

Organizations such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, provide tips on their websites on how to reduce the risk of a sexual assault. They advise victims on what to do after an attack, underscoring the importance of getting medical attention and preserving evidence. Neither, however, includes information about what to do during an assault.

The Texas Women’s University counseling center’s website says there is no “single best way to react,” and to “use your own judgment concerning the degree of physical resistance you put forth.”

But the Michigan State Police website gives the same advice as the controversial Shaw pamphlet.

“It may be more advisable to submit than to resist and risk severe injury or death. You will have to make this decision based on the circumstances. But don't resist if the attacker has a weapon,” according to the state police’s page on crime prevention.

In the response to Slaughter, Wright said standardized sexual assault prevention and response curriculum and training materials are underway.

“We are confident that this standardization will produce greater consistency across the services,” she wrote.

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