Air Force Defends Controversial Sexual Assault Poster, Expert Calls It 'Classic Commanding Officer Hogwash'

Jim Witmer for the Dayton Daily NewsAir Force Col. Cassie Barlow, commanding officer of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Earlier this month, Business Insider broke the story about Jennifer Stephens, a female soldier who fired back at the military for a poster blaming victims of sexual assault.

The poster, hung in a women’s restroom at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, told potential victims of sexual assault that they could “avoid becoming a victim” by paying attention to their surroundings and associating with people who share their values, among other things.

Stephens was troubled by this official tactic of sexual assault prevention, as it places responsibility for sex crimes on the shoulders of the victims.

It’s estimated that fewer than 15% of victims of sexual assault in the military report the crime. Stephens said that she thought tactics like the poster at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base contributed to that.

In response to the story, Col. Cassie Barlow, who commands the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson, reached out to Business Insider to explain the robustness of their sexual assault prevention efforts.

“Just from a strategic level, I like to look at the program in terms of four different prongs to a stool, basically,” Barlow said.

She described the four “prongs” as taking care of survivors, investigating every single case, prevention, and continually reinforcing a culture of respect and trust.

“Something we’ve done a little bit differently here at Wright-Patterson is that we’ve really initiated a grassroots effort,” she said.

Barlow said that she approved the poster, designed by Wright-Patterson’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

“We have a lot of very, very young airmen who come to us from their house, where they lived with Mum and Dad. And Mum and Dad, through the 18 years that they lived with them, gave them lots of hints of things they could do to be safe in any environment,” she said. “And if this saves one or two people who were never told by their parents when they left home that people can put drugs in their drink — there are people out there who don’t know that. So if this saves one or two people from being assaulted or being a victim of a crime, then we succeed.”

Barlow said she intends to sit down with Stephens but was critical of her take on the poster.

“That’s one person’s view of that,” Barlow said. “They have the right to believe that, but like I said before, this is a very important issue to us we’re doing everything we can possibly do to fight the problem.”

Barlow said she was in contact with the people who created the Invisible War documentary, or the Service Women’s Action Network, both groups which have been critical on the military’s approach to sexual assault prevention.

AP128597029167Associated PressAnu Bhagwati, the executive director and co-founder of the Service Women’s Action Network.

“Yep, yep we are in contact with them,” Barlow said. “Obviously that video was sponsored in our congressional district, so yeah, we are very familiar with them and we talk to them regularly.”

We heard a different story, however, when talking to Anu Bhagwati, the executive director and co-founder of the Service Women’s Action Network, and a leader in the fight against sexual assault in the military. A former Marine Corps captain, she was profiled in the Invisible War, has testified before Congress, and speaks regularly before national news outlets on the issues effecting women in the military.

“I would really love to know what experts she’s talking to, because she’s not talking to the right ones,” Bhagwati said. “The folks at the top just don’t get it.”

Bhagwati used a Marine Corps expression in describing the messaging — “piss poor.”

“The first thing it causes is victims to feel shame, guilt, and self-blame,” Bhagwati said. “It’s incredibly ineffective.”

We asked Bhagwati whether the things listed on the Air Force poster would keep people safe.

“This is classic commanding officer hogwash. You cannot conflate actual awareness with sexual assault awareness,” Bhagwati said. “It’s one thing for leaders to pull their troops aside, which happens every day, and say ‘hey, you shouldn’t drink too much,’ no one should do that throughout society, but to conflate those issues with being sexually assaulted is wrong.”

Bhagwati said the messaging from the military about preventing sexual assault should be directed firmly and directly at perpetrators.

“But instead alcohol is always part of the messaging,” Bhagwati said, “and it’s always used against victims.”

Barlow said Wright-Patterson and the Air Force stand behind the poster as an effective means of preventing sexual assault and have no intention to change the tactic.

“At this point we don’t,” the colonel said. “We ran the poster up through our headquarters and through the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and they are in lock step with us in continuing our prevention efforts.”

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