The Air Force is planning to take on cyberbullying of sexual assault victims, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said in a Wednesday interview.
Spencer said that Air Force lawyers are working on guidance to send to commanders outlining actions that can be taken against airmen who take to social media to attack sexual assault victims.
"If you're in the military, you are not immune to slandering someone in social media," Spencer said in his Pentagon office. "We want to get guidance out to our commanders to say, you are not helpless in this. If you can find out who said it and it was completely inappropriate, there are actions you can take."
Spencer said that the group Human Rights Watch's May report on widespread retaliation faced by sexual assault victims across the military "was quite shocking for us." That report outlined dozens of instances of professional retaliation — or when a supervisor unfairly punishes victims, gives them poor performance reviews or withholds professional opportunities from them — and social retaliation, such as peer ostracism, that sexual assault victims frequently encounter in the military.
Anecdotes and data collected by the Air Force show that gossiping or badmouthing sexual assault victims — especially on Facebook or other social media sites — is the most common form of retaliation they face in the service, Spencer said. And that is unacceptable, he said.
"Put yourself in the shoes of a victim," Spencer said. "And you got raped, or are otherwise sexually assaulted, and you were brave enough and courageous enough to come forward, and you're getting beat up by your peers, perhaps in a social media. That's just not something that we can tolerate."
In a follow-up email, Air Force spokesman Maj. Christopher Moore said that the service will issue the 2015 Equal Opportunity and Non-Discrimination Policy memorandum sometime in the next few weeks. It will emphasize that harassment can include sexual jokes and comments, sexual propositions, comments about someone's body, uninvited physical contact, and any sexual picture or statement sent via computers, telephones, or social media.
"The full range of appropriate disciplinary and corrective action -- from reassignment to discharge, and verbal counseling to court-martial -- is available to commanders as appropriate to address any type of unlawful conduct using any type of communication medium," Moore said.
Moore also said Air Force officials are serving on a Defense Department working group that will develop policy on preventing and addressing hazing, which includes hazing through electronic communication.
"We are not going to stand for retaliation," Spencer said.
Air Force Instruction 1-1 already orders airmen not to engage in offensive or inappropriate behavior on social media that would discredit them or the Air Force, or would harm good order and discipline, unit cohesion and morale. It also tells airmen they are obligated to maintain appropriate communication and conduct through all forms of communication, such as social media, email, instant messaging or texting.
Moore said Spencer wants to make sure commanders understand their responsibility to enforce those guidelines.
Spencer also said that the Air Force is trying to do more to prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place, particularly by encouraging bystander intervention, or having airmen step in when they see a situation that could turn into a sexual assault.
But he acknowledged there are often social pressures that keep airmen from intervening, and it's often not easy for them to stand up to their peers.
"They look at us and say ... 'I'm 18, 19 years old, I'm in a situation here with my peers,'" Spencer said. "'And they're all watching me, and you're asking me now to step out of my group and intervene with one of my buddies? And now the wrath that I've got to take from all my friends ... you really want me to do that?' I say, 'Absolutely, that's what we want you to do.' And they say, 'OK, I got it, but just understand that's not as easy as it sounds, and we need your help.' "
And sometimes airmen are squeamish about talking about these issues, Spencer said.
Spencer said that he and Maj. Gen. Gina Grosso, director of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, have worked to put more vignettes into anti-sexual assault training to get airmen to act out different scenarios that could require bystander intervention, and to prepare themselves to stand up against the peer pressure they may face. The Air Force has also consulted with sexual assault experts from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to help refine its training, and try to find ways to screen out people who might commit sexual assault, or who are already sexual predators, before they join the Air Force.
And Spencer said commanders and sexual assault response coordinators, or SARCs, are asking sexual assault victims if they are willing to talk about retaliation they may have encountered, so the Air Force can better understand what's going on in the field.
"If we can prevent sexual assaults from happening, then [retaliation] will go away, because they won't happen," Spencer said. "Experts tell us that it can be prevented, but it's not easy."