Under pressure to fight incidences of sexual assault, the US armed forces in recent years rolled out education programs about proper sexual conduct through methods like role playing and video games.
The increase in education has nevertheless failed to prevent what the nation’s top general called last week “a crisis” after the Pentagon reported a 37 percent jump in the estimated number of sexual assault cases last year.
Moreover, the military suffered deep embarrassment when personnel who worked on preventing sexual assaults were themselves accused of sex crimes this month.
On Friday, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave top brass a week to come up with a plan for discussing the problem with all troops and ensuring proper training for those who deal with new recruits and sexual assault victims.
Education campaigns teach service members basics like how to make sure the other party is a willing participant in intimate contact, or how to step in as a bystander if a situation looks like it could lead to inappropriate conduct.
The US Army is in the fifth year of its “I Am Strong” sexual assault prevention campaign, under which all new soldiers are drilled on a set of 10 “sex rules.”
All members of the US Air Force are required each year to have one hour of face-to-face sexual assault prevention training from a sexual assault response coordinator.
While all the US’ military services have programs on avoiding sexual assault, critics say training may never be enough to do away with the problem.
What is needed, says former US Marine captain Anu Bhagwati, is a shake-up in the military judicial system.
“The military cannot train its way out of this problem,” said Bhagwati, who is now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which campaigns for women’s issues in the US armed forces.
She urges the military to take prosecution of sexual assault cases away from the chain of command, making it easier for victims to seek justice, an idea echoed in a US Senate bill last week.
US Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh said it will take time and diligence to see progress from sexual assault prevention training.
“This is not going to be a rapid fix,” Welsh said. “It’s got to be a constant attention to detail.”
While more than half the victims of sexual assault in the US military are men, women in the services are still more likely to be accosted sexually.
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said last week the military is losing the confidence of women members because of the sexual assault “crisis.”
The US Army has a live, interactive program called “Sex Signals” in which soldiers watch actors role play dating scenarios on stage and discuss whether the participants correctly understand how their actions are viewed.
The US Army also makes use of a video game called Team-Bound in which players witness a potential sexual harassment incident.
New recruits are drilled on a set of 10 rules, from “sexual assault is a crime” and “no always means no” to “stop sexual hazing, bullying and assault.”
To some, the training can come off as half-hearted.
The Protect Our Defenders victims’ advocacy group said a US Air Force officer told them that a course he took consisted of being given two brochures to read and being told to sign a paper saying he had come to the class.
The treatment of victims often leaves a lot to be desired, Welsh said.
One story that Welsh says hit him “like a tonne of bricks” was that of a service member who had been raped in another country. When she went to a base hospital for testing, a technician came out to the waiting room and said in a loud voice, “OK, now who was the sexual assault victim?”
The US Air Force started a program in January in which victims are assigned an attorney to guide them through the process and keep them from having to go over their testimony repeatedly.
Welsh said early statistics on the program show the percentage of people willing to proceed with prosecutions is up substantially.