Thoughts On Sexual Assault Prevention (in the military)

 A little while back I attended a leadership seminar here at NSA Bahrain dedicated to sexual assault and suicide prevention. One of the speakers was Dr. Alan Berkowitz. He caught my attention with some interesting things he had to say about bystander behaviors and mentioned sexual assault prevention in the military would require cultural change. At the end of his talk he invited everyone to e-mail him with any thoughts they had and seemed very approachable. So I took him up on his offer and sent him the e-mail below.

Dr. Berkowitz,
I recently attended a talk you gave on sexual assault prevention at NSA Bahrain. You brought up some points I thought were pretty interesting and would liked to have spoken to you more but did not have the opportunity. I took a few notes and had some thoughts I wanted to share on the subject. Keep in mind these are coming from a career Marine and a 1stSgt in an infantry outfit.

You mentioned prevention required a cultural change. While I agree this statement is true I don’t believe it is military culture which requires change. As a matter of fact, everything you mentioned about intervention, prevention, enabling behaviors, and the like, can all be covered through the proper application of the 14 Leadership Traits and 11 Leadership Principles which I have attached. It should also be pointed out the two primary goals of leadership are mission accomplishment and troop welfare. Both of these goals cover the range of force preservation issues including sexual assault prevention and don’t seem to need any cultural change in that aspect.

As I have noted throughout my career, three months of boot camp does not undo a lifetime of bad habits and poor decision making. Nor will it repair any fundamental character flaws possessed by young troops who join our ranks. I was mortified when you related a young woman raised her hand in one of your classes and asked: “You mean it’s sexual assault if a guy puts his hand down my pants?” What kind of world did she grow up in where behavior like that is acceptable or the norm? The other statement which struck me was: “I don’t want to walk around base alone at night.” I cannot conceive of a universe where U.S. Marines are nearby and Americans remain in fear for themselves. These things have never been acceptable according to our core values. The cultural change needed isn’t within the military. Convincing troops to adopt our value system as their own is a function of leadership and something we encourage within Marines throughout their enlistment.

Conduct is the number one thing I talk to Marines about. Whether it is a liberty brief or part of a professional military education class, I always remind my Marines that Americans expect and deserve a certain standard of personal behavior out of us. When people hear the word Marine there is anticipation of a particular product. It is our job to deliver that product. How do we ensure we are delivering said merchandise? Professional development is defined as the process by which leaders cultivate those qualities which will characterize their troops as Marines. Ensuring my troops understand how to comport themselves as Marines is the surest way I know how to deliver.

Culturally, Marines are action oriented. It is often said when the shooting starts you will find Marines running toward the sound of the guns. The idea that the same Marines who would advance unflinchingly into enemy fire would fail to intervene when confronted with sexual assault disturbs me. The bystander as you described in your class is the antithesis of Marine Corps ideals like decisive, sound decision making and initiative.

There was a comment about an individual who conducted himself professionally in the execution of his daily tasks and duties but had some “…stuff on the side…” which turned out to be abhorrent. In the Marine Corps we do not have “stuff on the side.” There is only our conduct as Marines whether on or off duty. We maintain we are still Marines and act accordingly on leave and liberty as well as during “working hours.” Debate often rages between the idea of a “garrison” Marine vs. a “field” Marine.
Institutionally, the Marine Corps does not distinguish between the two and ideally a good Marine is one who performs well in both environments.

At the end of the day it is my job to demand the same valor off the battlefield as I do on it. The Marine Corps motives for doing what we do have not changed. Our values are not new to us institutionally but may have never been articulated in the minds of our troops. We who are in the position to make a daily impact on those in our charge are duty bound to train them in comportment. I want to influence Marines to consciously desire to make sound and timely decisions and treat others with dignity. In that instance of conscious choice the cultural change will take place and the self oriented individual will become the other oriented member of a unit.

Thanks for your time.

Semper Fidelis,

America’s 1stSgt
(okay, so I didn’t actually sign off as America’s 1stSgt)

/ / / /


  1. Wow… kinda quiet in here…

    I was flexing my typing muscles most of yesterday after reading this, as you’ve hit upon one of my hot topics. But i couldn’t think of anything to say except “yeah, i agree, sort of”.

    I’m not quite sure what you were asking/telling Dr Berkowitz? I’ve interpreted it as your personal standpoint and the official Marine Corps view are in accord, and that you strive to make sure your Marines aspire to those expected behaviours, but you don’t think a military cultural change is necessary?

    But (devil’s advocate here) if sexual assault still occurs within the military, surely a cultural change is required?

    Sadly, gathering from my own experiences (both first- and second-hand) non-violent sex-based crimes are rarely a product of lust-fuelled insanity or an attempt at controlling the victim; rather, they occur simply because there was an opportunity. Only altering an individual’s perspective on the crime will change their behaviour.

  2. Top,
    When I was in Wonderful Iraq, the Army had started a Sexual Assault Prevention program.
    I was confused for a few reasons.
    #1, for years they had taught classes on preventing sexual harassment.
    How did it get worse?

    #2. How could anybody assault anybody who was armed 24 hours a day?

  3. Since most sexual assaults are done by someone that the victim trusts, being armed 24/7 doesn’t guarantee it won’t happen. I agree with 1st Sgt. – until we as a society change our culture to view sexual assault as not acceptable at all, any time, any where, – it won’t matter if you are in the military or not. It is a problem, and one that needs to be addressed, I’m just not sure how we need to go about it. Having good parents is a start…

  4. Thanks for commenting gang. I was wondering if this was too hot a topic for a minute.

    Magoo, my point was simply saying the military needs to change culturally is a misnomer if institutionally we embrace values which fundamentally opposed to things like sexual assault. Again, I didn’t disagree that cultural change was needed I just think it should be focused on individuals within our ranks.

    Sexual assault occurs even more frequently in regular society I would think. Surely military members are a cross section of its society, so who’s culturally screwed up again? To infer the military tolerates this kind of behavior is crazy.

    Maybe I am in a minority (in he military) but as a leader I try to instill a code of warrior ethics that my troops will adopt as their own. Ideally, they would then reject behaviors which were contrary to this ethos and not tolerate things like sexual assault within their sphere of influence.

  5. CI-Roller, although I suppose sexual harassment is a different thing (at least we get different classes for it) I would submit my solution for solving this is the same. A valorous individual would not harass/sexually assault anyone.

    As far as assaulting people who are armed I think Leslie is correct. From what I understand most of these types of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. And again, not everyone has a combat mindset like yours and mine and are always switched on.

  6. Leslie, I agree. I mention in my post some people have never been exposed to the kind of values and morality the military exposes. Some people will never adopt it either. Others are fundamentally flawed and there is no fixing them.

  7. Thank you for the clarification. We appear to be in agreement 🙂

    (Rollerdude: I don’t think it got worse. We’re just more open about discussing it now. UK rape statistics from the 1940s, when they first started measuring, suggested it was about 1 in 1000. 2007 stats say 1 in 200. Did it get 5 times worse in those 70 years? No, but people’s attitudes changed, and it was more acceptable to report it)

    I think any education is a good thing, but i’m hoping for a shift in focus – there are too many grey areas. Your example of the girl who spoke about “his hand in her pants” is a good place to start. If she doesn’t understand that activity is a sexual assault, she’s not going to speak up to him. If she doesn’t speak up at that point, he’s going to believe he has consent. And he will want to take it to another level. If she does nothing to indicate that she does not consent, who’s to blame there? Are his actions contra to the ethics prescribed by the military? You’ll get as many answers to those question as there are people answering, because it’s completely subjective to a person’s own belief system.

    I should point out that i’m not in the “blame the victim” camp, but i’m a firm believer in risk management. If you don’t give someone the opportunity to hurt you, most times they probably won’t.

  8. Saker, good question. I often say Marines will do whatever we let them. If we let them live like pigs the barracks will be filthy. If we allow them to sit around instead of PT they will get weak. If we allow them to sit around idle, they will create mischief. On the other hand, if we hold them to a standard of conduct they will begin to comport themselves. Clean up will happen on its own. Physical fitness weoll become an individual goal. Being a Marine will become a lifestyle rather than a chore.

    Also, if we stand around and allow our fellow servicemen to act any way they choose, whose fault is it? I think a bias for action, peer leadership, and personal responsibility will eliminate bystander behaviors.

    Those values on paper are only BS is YOU allow them to be.

  9. I have a few thoughts on this…..

    First… I take personal issue with the word “victim” I know it’s the word the media and doctors use, but after being sexually assaulted by someone I knew and trusted… I refuse to be called a “victim.” I am a SURVIVOR. But then that’s me.

    Second… I assumed military personnel held themselves to higher standards but have recently learned someone whom I thought was a very close friend (NOT a Marine) lied about everything. His wife… his girlfriend… his home… and so much more. Why he lied to me I don’t understand. I have no idea what benefits he got from lying to me, but this has shaken me to my very core. I held this “friend” to a higher standard because of his many years of NCO service and can only say I’m devastated by his true nature. It makes me wonder if you can ever truly know anyone…. and what they’re capable of regardless of their service.

  10. Kristina, the word victim, by definition, doesn’t neccessarily imply helplessness or weakness. I do like your survivor mindset though. It implies a tendency toward action.

    As an institution, the military does hold its members to a higher standard of conduct. But just like any institution; police, teachers, Congress, there are individuals who will never, ever “get it” and will act in their own self interest. There those who have never grasped the true concept behind “Semper Fidelis.” I have shocked Marines when I have told them if their spouses can’t trust them then there is no reason any Marine to their left or right can either. In my mind your former friend’s misconduct behind the scenes negates any good service he did prior. Sometimes it takes a while but people’s true nature reveals itself sooner or later.

  11. I know the definition of “victim” doesn’t mean helpless, but for me it implies that I am giving a predator some amount control in my life, and I can’t have that. I also associate the word “victim” with death and I’m very much a live. It’s just one of those words that makes me go crazy postal and don’t want to be associated with it.

    I agree eventually everyone’s true nature comes out, but I appear to be a magnet for those with less than honorable intentions. If you have any insight into how I attract this brand of human I’d love to hear it, as I’d prefer to surround myself with honest hard working souls that truly mean what they say and do what they mean.

    Is it possible that I’m asking for too much?

  12. I don’t think it’s too much to expect someone’s yes to mean yes and no mean no. Unfortunately, it has always been easier to be a selfish dirtbag than a stand up type. Humans being human they tend to go the easy route. My only suggestion would be to keep a jar on your desk with a couple of cubes of meat floating in it. When someone asks you could just mumble something noncommittal about an ex boyfriend or something.

  13. Thank you for not disappointing me 1st Sgt. This is EXACTLY the type of wisdom I was looking for…. because the guns and the kids don’t scare away the creeps. This has just enough twisted darkness to be a first step filter. Although I might need to modify it to a dried ear on my key chain or something…
    This might make the kids behave better when I’m substitute teaching too…. Bawh haa haa

  14. Fantastic letter, 1st Sgt! I am so glad you sent this to that gentleman… I completely agree with so many of the points you articulated. Marines certainly do (or should) always maintain their standards of conduct and I love how you worded that sentiment

  15. Randy, that seems like a strange post on USNI blog. Not sure what to make of the poster. Either they meant it seriously or it was a smart ass remark to sexual assault prevention.

    As for keeping you in the loop, why yes, I will.

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