After years of mixed results with its sexual assault-prevention strategy, the Air Force is rolling out a new program that will do less lecturing and more encouraging of bystander intervention.

The Air Force has contracted with the non-profit organization Green Dot etc. to provide violence prevention tools to all airmen over the next three years, as its first step in the five-year strategy to decrease interpersonal violence across the service. From January to March, the first 1,500 volunteer trainers will attend one of 22 Green Dot preparation sessions worldwide so they can learn how to teach other airmen these strategies.

"It's on all of us to take responsibility to prevent interpersonal violence in our Air Force," Brig. Gen. Lenny Richoux, director of Air Force services and chair of its Community Action Information Board, which will help oversee Green Dot, said in a Wednesday release. "There are more good airmen out there who want to take care of their wingman than there are predators seeking to inflict acts of violence inside our family, and I have confidence our airmen won't let me or each other stand alone against this criminal behavior."

In a Wednesday interview, Andra Tharp – the Air Force's expert on preventing sexual assault and other forms of violence – said the new Green Dot system will hopefully do more than just teach bystanders how to step in when they see, for example, a sexual assault about to happen at a bar or drunken party. She hopes it will lead to a cultural change in how airmen think about all forms of interpersonal violence – not just sexual assault, but also domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, child abuse, elder abuse and bullying.

"The misnomer of bystander intervention is that it focuses only on high-risk situations," Tharp said. "But a true bystander approach focuses on culture change, in addition to intervening in these high-risk situations."

By using Green Dot to address multiple forms of interpersonal power-based violence, the Air Force hopes to consolidate its multiple violence-prevention strategies, which were sometimes redundant, Tharp said.

It also uses everyday airmen who have been specially trained – but not the usual messengers such as leaders or people who work in sexual assault or other violence prevention – to deliver that message. Tharp said airmen are more likely to listen to such peer-to-peer instruction than authority figures.

And the program will acknowledge that asking airmen to be active bystanders – that is, stepping in and stopping a possible assault from happening – can be difficult, Tharp said. There can be many barriers to intervening, such as peer pressure, or the fear of worsening the situation and causing further violence, she said, and it aims to teach them safe and effective ways to defuse a situation.

Green Dot also represents the Air Force's attempt to move away from its previous methods of trying to stop sexual assaults from happening, which had unintended consequences, Tharp said.

Tharp said that the old strategies that ended up in the field generally focused on telling "potential victims"  – usually female airmen – what not to do or drink to reduce their risk of sexual assault. That ended up having the unintentional effect of blaming victims who had suffered sexual assaults and reinforcing the idea that women are weak and need to be protected, she said.

On the other hand, Tharp said, field discussions on consent and preventing perpetration of sexual assaults largely focused on telling men what not to do. Tharp also said the Air Force heard complaints from the field that there was too much focus on not telling sexist jokes as compared to rape prevention in the old system.

"Potential allies and helpers are feeling alienated and defensive because that's the message they're hearing from these approaches," Tharp said. "Not intended, but that's what they're hearing. So what Green Dot does is it acknowledges that the majority of people are never going to be ... either the victim or the perpetrator. So you have all of these people that can [be] supportive, that can be engaged in other ways of prevention. That message of, 'What can I do ... to prevent an assault from happening?' ... seems to be more well-received."

The new Green Dot system seeks to avoid that kind of a lecturing scenario. Tharp said that it will instead teach airmen how to intervene, such as by subtly and safely stepping in to defuse an escalating situation  – while also acknowledging that this can be difficult.

For example, she said, one college student who went through Green Dot training at his school was once at a party where he saw his friend taking a clearly intoxicated woman into an isolated room. That student feared his friend might have been about to sexually assault her, so he yelled that the friend's car was getting towed. While the friend checked on his car, the student and others stepped in to bring the woman back out of the room.

The potential assault was stopped without the friend losing face in an embarrassing scene, which kept the situation from escalating, Tharp said.

Tharp said that as airmen learn these bystander intervention tactics, they will absorb the lessons on how to prevent sexual assault or other violence from happening to themselves, or that they shouldn't commit these kinds of assaults.

"That's what we see in the studies," Tharp said. "Individuals who receive Green Dot don't just say they will be more active bystanders, but it's actually tied to a reduction in victimization and perpetration."

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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