Bystander training co-developer speaks with Academy leaders

Anne Munch discusses myths surrounding sexual assault during a presentation to Air Force Academy leaders Jan. 15, 2015. Munch, a lawyer for 27 years, focused on prosecuting sexual assault during most of her work for the Denver District Attorney and helped create the Air Force's bystander intervention training program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

Anne Munch discusses myths surrounding sexual assault during a presentation to Air Force Academy leaders Jan. 15, 2015. Munch, a lawyer for 27 years, focused on prosecuting sexual assault during most of her work for the Denver District Attorney and helped create the Air Force's bystander intervention training program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Author's Note: This story contains discussion of sexual assault that may trigger traumatic memories in survivors of sexual assault.

A co-developer of the Air Force's bystander intervention program to prevent sexual assault and former prosecutor for the Denver District Attorney spoke with senior leaders, instructors and air officers commanding during a presentation in Fairchild Hall Jan. 15.

Anne Munch discussed the "unnamed conspirator," the collection of myths and misconceptions surrounding rape, and what leaders can do to create an environment safe from sexual violence.

"When they surveyed the cadets ... to find out what they think, what they'd like to see, and what they'd like to have happen, I got an honorable mention," Munch said. "The reason why I'm here is for the cadet who said, 'I think that bringing out that lady who is an actual lawyer and who deals with this stuff was a good idea.'"

Munch devoted herself to fighting sexual assault when she was confronted with a police report while working at a family crisis center.

"A police officer came up to me, and he said, 'Anne, if you really want to understand what happens to women here, read this.' It was the first police report that I'd ever read, and this police report detailed the acts that an adult male committed against a little girl. I read black words on white paper what happened to her. And I'll tell you what: Something in me changed," she said. "Something in me clicked. That was the defining moment in my career."

As she gained experience prosecuting sexual assault cases, however, Munch said jury verdicts sometimes defied reason.

"They lied to me in law school. They told me justice is determined based on the evidence and what happens between two people," she said. "The more I tried these cases ... the more I was left scratching my head and not understanding. What I realized was there was something else at play.

"There was another character, another influence that was at play in these cases that had nothing to do with the victim, the offender or the evidence. There was a third party, that was not listed in the police reports, didn't show up on charging documents, didn't physically come into court ... but this third party was absolutely involved in each and every one of the cases that I tried. Not only was it involved, it was having the lion's share of the influence over the outcome in my cases, and it baffled me. I thought, 'Wow, I'd better get to know what this is.'"

She named this element the unnamed conspirator.

"When we're talking about sexual assault, this is an area where the tail wags the dog," she said. "The game changes completely when the subject is sexual assault."

The unnamed conspirator influences people to see sexual assault as a special case that follows a different set of rules from other crimes, Munch said.

"It creates a rulebook for victim behavior," she said. "It influences victims to blame themselves. I've worked cases with victims as young as 3 years old ... and as old as 83 years old, and whether it's a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, I have never met a victim in my entire career who did not at one level or another blame themselves for the crime that was committed against them."

The unnamed conspirator influences people to change their focus from the criminal's behavior to the victim's behavior, Munch said. She played a recording of a 911 call in which a young woman reported having been sexually and physically assaulted but who blamed herself because she'd been drinking with the assailant earlier in the evening.

"She's told him no, asked him to leave the room; he's hit her in the face with a closed fist, possibly breaking her nose. This is a victim who is convinced that this is her fault. That is the strength of the unnamed conspirator. That's what's at play, and it's completely unfair."

Women frequently receive blame for sexual assaults involving alcohol. But while alcohol can make a person more vulnerable, Munch said predators are responsible for taking advantage of victims' vulnerability.

"I'm not suggesting you go get as drunk as you want, and nothing's going to happen to you," she said. "That's silly. What I'm saying is, we don't solve the problem by focusing on vulnerability."

Munch projected common victim-blaming myths to other crimes like robbery. If clothing implies consent, she argued, would someone who is visibly wealthy be at fault if someone else robbed him? If drinking makes sexual assault the victim's fault, does it do the same thing for a victim of theft?

"For the same reason that a robber chooses a drunk victim (over a sober victim), a rapist will also choose a drunk victim," she said.

Munch said leaders should continue to foster an environment where cadets feel comfortable reporting incidents of sexual assault.

"You had a lot of reports last year," she said. "That's good news, but there's a lot more than 45 cases happening. But not everyone's going to want to report, and that's something we have to respect while creating a climate where it's safe to come forward."

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, the Academy's superintendent, thanked Munch for the presentation and reaffirmed the Academy's commitment to eliminating sexual assault.

"Thank you for being here and helping us try to learn more about this so we can get this right," General Johnson said. "While the prevalence is steady, the reports still break your heart. We want to get better."