The U.S. military has a problem. It can defeat ISIS’ physical caliphate, decimate al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and keep the international order we have enjoyed since the end of World War II, but when it comes to eradicating a certain problem within our force, we haven’t cracked the code.
What is this problem? Sexual assault.
Military sexual assault has arguably always been a problem. It managed to escape public limelight for decades, but thanks to Hollywood and the #MeToo movement, the issue is finally getting the serious attention it deserves.
The military is the most trusted institution in America, and we recognize that to earn and keep that trust, we must educate our leadership and eradicate sexual assault from our ranks. We’re taking steps in that direction.
Last month in Annapolis, I attended the inaugural National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment hosted by America’s College, Universities and Services Academies. University presidents, academy superintendents, researchers, members of Congress and survivors, to include U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, who is in both latter categories, discussed their frustration with this problem that continues to haunt college campuses and the nation at large. The military has led the way in sharing and analyzing data, but with a dearth of effective programs to date more must be done to find, fund and study prevention strategies that prove to have an impact.
Until we can figure out how to prevent this crime, the department is taking steps to ensure we effectively handle reports of sexual assault. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan established the Sexual Assault Task Force, of which I am a member, to examine the military judicial process for sexual assault cases, looking specifically at the investigative process and accountability. On April 30, we delivered our recommendations to Secretary Shanahan.
This is progress, but there is more work to do. The National Discussion held at Annapolis confirmed attitudes about sexual relations are shaped early by family, friends, the media and the internet. Students’ minds are nearly cemented on this topic before they’re eligible to join the military.
Hollywood, this is where your military needs your help.
Hollywood has a platform to shift cultural attitudes and reach Americans at a young age. This platform has been used for good in the past. Once it was depicted “cool” to drive drunk and smoke cigarettes, but Hollywood, with an assist from organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the U.S. Surgeon General, helped change that narrative. The days of Humphrey Bogart chain smoking on the big screen gave way to high school classmates voluntarily turning over their car keys to a “keymaster” before a drinking party in the 1989 John Cusack romantic comedy “Say Anything.”
That same shift is needed now to help eliminate sexual assault from our civil society and our military. Forceful sex — buttons ripped off blouses, bodies slammed against walls — have always been part of Hollywood’s passion playbook. But that needs to change. Even worse, violence, aggression, objectification of women and unacceptable sexual behavior has seeped into everyday film far too often. Hollywood and the entertainment industry, as they have before, can help shape what exclusive, “yes-means-yes” consent and healthy relationships look like.
No one should do more to provide an environment free of sexual abuse than the U.S. military — one occurrence is one too many. However, this crime permeates our society, and the civilian and military worlds must work together to create holistic solutions. Our sons and daughters deserve no less.
If you are a victim, please contact the DoD Safe Helpline to find the help and resources you need. Call 800.656.HOPE (4673).
Thomas Ayres is the U.S. Air Force general counsel.