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Expert: Start at the top to prevent sex crimes

Jul. 2, 2013 - 10:13AM   |  
Psychology professor and sex crime prevention expert Chris Kilmartin.
Psychology professor and sex crime prevention expert Chris Kilmartin. (Contributed)
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FREDERICKSBURG, VA. — In April 2011, psychology professor and sex crime prevention expert Chris Kilmartin took his message to military leaders in San Antonio.

He delivered his presentation, Leadership and Sexual Assault Prevention, at three bases to disparate audiences: A two-star general at Fort Sam Houston attended the seminar and re-enforced Kilmartin’s message afterward. At Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, about 75 people showed up for what was supposed to be mandatory attendance for 300. And at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Kilmartin spoke to an all-voluntary audience of seven.

“The contrast between a base where people take an issue seriously and two bases where they don’t was really clear to me,” the University of Mary Washington professor said June 23 from his home in Fredericksburg.

A day later, he left for an 11-month stint at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he’ll work in the Behavioral Sciences Department and teach classes on men and masculinity and interpersonal violence. It’s not his first time working with the military; he has also presented for the Army’s sexual assault prevention summit and developed curriculum for the Naval Academy.

“Strong statements from people in power are really important,” he said. “We need leaders to set the tone. We need bystanders not to be passive and to challenge what they see. Then you need to stop the offenders with really strong prosecution.”

Kilmartin’s work with the Air Force comes amid multiple scandals, including the investigations of 33 Lackland military training instructors accused of crimes ranging from rape and sex assault to unprofessional relationships with vulnerable basic trainees.

Here’s what Kilmartin had to say about his work and his take on what some have called a crisis.

Q. How do you teach future military leaders about sexual assault prevention and response?

A. What we try to do is always come back to “this is a part of your job.” This isn’t just nice things to do for people. This is part of what makes you a good commander. It’s an enlightened self-interest approach. You’re going to have women working with you. Now we can finally talk about we’re going to have gay and lesbian people working for you. You’re going to have racial and religious diversity. How do you provide a tone that makes you into a working unit? Nothing is going to divide a group more than somebody assaulting somebody.

Q. What are your goals at the Air Force Academy?

A. I want to have influence at all levels, but especially the highest level. I want to be able to affect them top down. When we did the sexual harassment and assault prevention summit for the Army in 2011, [retired] Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said we need the repugnance of the crime of sexual assault to ripple through every person in this Army. That’s really the goal of good leadership.

The other part is to help them understand how men are being socialized and how that sets the context for the problem. It starts when you’re a little boy. We teach boys to hate anything that’s feminine. We have to set a tone of respect for people. We have to talk about the aspirational standards and not just the minimum standards. You get the beer question a lot. How many beers must a woman have before it’s illegal to have sex with her? That’s a jury question. Really, it’s a coded question. You’re asking, ‘What is the maximum manipulation of a human being before I’m held accountable?’

Q. How did you get interested in sexual assault prevention?

A. It started in graduate school in the 1980s when I learned men die earlier than women. I became interested in how the culture influences or pressures men to be a certain way. As I’m going along, I learn men commit 87 percent of violent crimes. Although most men are not violent, most violent people are men.

Q. Is the military buying what you have to say?

A. I don’t think we’re going to have potential rapists in the room and we’re going to be able to change them. But I think we can change the people around them and make them more active. We need you to challenge sexist remarks, to challenge bullying behavior ... to think of yourselves as this band of brothers, which is now this band of brothers and sisters. We’re trying to empower the healthy voices.

When a commander sexually harasses women or tolerates the kind of attitudes that support sexual harassment, women under his command are at a 600 percent increased risk for sexual assault. The good news is we could stop 85 percent of it tomorrow if we could get the commanders to act differently. When commanders set a tone that we won’t tolerate social exclusion of people in general — because men are being assaulted, too — we’ll have fewer problems.

I met a Marine captain at the Naval Academy who said, ‘The tail gunner on my Humvee was a woman when I was in Iraq. I trusted my life with her. I put her there because she was the best at it. Do you think I’m going to tolerate any kind of disrespect of her?’ The whole time he was there, he didn’t have one incident, because he let them know this is not OK.

Q. Many Air Force leaders say the culture needs to change in order to reduce the crime of sex assault in the ranks. What do you think?

A. The military culture until recently has been a male culture. And so the culture has not, from what I’ve seen, fully incorporated women. It has not fully incorporated gay men and lesbians, either. Even talking about the culture — I get a sense it raises the anxiety in the room when you bring it up. So much about the military is tradition. We do things the way we’ve always done it.

Sexual assault has gotten all this attention in the military, but it’s not just the military. It’s every college campus in the country. So they are like us. And there are cultural supports for sexual assault.

Q. The Defense Department reported that 26,000 military members were subject to some form of unwanted sexual contact in 2012. Why is this happening on such a large scale?

A. I think people don’t understand the nature of the problem. Most offenders are serial offenders and most assaults are premeditated. On college campuses all the time people talk about alcohol and miscommunication. It’s just not true.

It’s a good thing alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault because if it did there would be 260,000 a year. If you don’t have the kind of propensity for attacking someone, you won’t do it when you’re drunk.

I don’t think we fix this problem by telling women what to do. We have to affect the men. So I think that misunderstanding — this just drives me crazy — all the time you will hear people talk about a sex scandal. These are not sex scandals. These are violence scandals.

Q. Is the military making progress?

A. Prejudice gets reduced pretty significantly when you reach a critical mass of a minority group. That critical mass approaches 25-30 percent. What will really help with this problem is when we start to get a critical mass of women in the service academies and the services in general.

The progress is slow. But it is progress. We weren’t even talking about it 10 years ago.

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