Air Force Removes Major Barrier to Reporting For Sexual Assault Victims
By adopting a new “safe to report” policy, the Air Force Academy has removed a major barrier that keeps victims of sexual assault from stepping forward to report the crime. The new policy will emphasize not punishing victims of sexual assault for infractions conducted during the time of their assault like drinking or sneaking off the base. The policy shift is because the Air Force found one of the main reasons victims don’t report is for fear they will be punished for other collateral misconducts related to the sexual assault.
A May 8 memo signed by Commandant of Cadets, Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin, said, “Collateral misconduct by a victim of sexual assault is one of the most significant barriers to reporting the assault because of the victim’s fear of punishment.”
The memo said violations such as adultery may still be punished, but it will be left to commanders to decide what other infractions warrant punishment, if any at all. However, the memo tasked commanders to do everything to “encourage reporting, avoid unnecessary additional trauma, and maintain good order and discipline” even though victims of assault may still be punished for certain other offenses.
Under the new policy, there are now certain offenses may not be punished if they become uncovered in the course of the investigation. These include alcohol possession in dorms, sexual activity within the cadet area, unapproved relationships between cadets, and sneaking off-base. But in a situation where these offenses are made worse by aggravating circumstances, the victims of sexual assaults may still expect some form of punishments.
Commanders nonetheless are empowered to decide the situations surrounding each offense occasioned by sexual assaults and apply administrative or disciplinary actions on a case-by-case basis. If a commander decides punishment is warranted for a sexual assault victim, then they should now “consider actions that minimize or eliminate impacts on the victims’ career.”
Rape and sexual assault in the military have been an especially challenging problem due to the difficulties in reporting. In 2016, the U.S. military received a record high 6,172 reports of sexual assault. In an anonymous survey 14,900 service members said they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual conduct from rape down to groping. The 2016 survey also found that 58 percent of victims who reported sexual assault experiences retaliation or reprisal.
What’s unclear is if the increasing numbers of sexual assault reports are a good sign because it means more people feel comfortable coming forward or if the problem is growing. The anonymous survey provides a better gauge of overall trends, and the 2016 statistic of 14,900 incidents of sexual misconduct is down from 20,300 in 2014.