Faculty, staff meet, discuss how to create safe climate

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A group of Academy faculty members took part in a series of brown bag lunches focused on addressing sexual harassment and assault that concluded Tuesday with a presentation of an Army training video called "amateur night" and a discussion of how faculty and staff can reinforce respect for human dignity at the Air Force Academy.

The video, published in 2009, is designed to train service members how to recognize and combat sexual harassment within the ranks by recognizing women as fellow warriors instead of objects. In the short film, a male Army specialist tries to collude with a male Army sergeant just after a female private first class leaves the room, referring to a woman as an "it."

"An 'it' is a thing," the sergeant responds. Holding up a pen, he continues, "This is a thing. I can do what I want with it. ... You do not treat your fellow Soldiers as things."
By the end of the video, the specialist appears convinced, intervening when another Soldier starts to harass the female private.

After the video presentation, Dr. Chris Kilmartin took over. Kilmartin, a visiting professor from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert on preventing gender-based violence and sexual harassment. He will spend the 2013-2014 academic year teaching courses in violence prevention and gender studies. He helped write the dialogue for the video, which runs about 12 minutes.

Kilmartin asked the audience how they might change a climate that accommodates sexual harassment.

"What kinds of things have you heard?" he asked. "What kinds of things have you heard that are disrespectful? What kinds of things have you heard that have bothered you, and you haven't spoken up? What might you do to speak up?

"One of the cadets said to me on Friday that somebody said to her in flight school that women shouldn't be pilots," Kilmartin recalled. "What I began to wonder ... was, were there men -- of equal or greater rank, especially -- who let it go? Who didn't confront that attitude with the person?"

The failure to intervene when one person sexually harasses another falls under what psychologists call pluralistic ignorance, Kilmartin said. The term defines people who believe they're in the minority when they're really in the majority.

"I bet you most pilots ... if they're like most college students, they're offended by sexism, but they overestimate the degree to which other people are accepting," he said.

Research illustrates that environments where sexual harassment is allowed, either explicitly or through others' silence, are dangerous environments for women. Doctors at the Iowa City, Iowa, Veterans Affairs Medical Center published a paper in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2003. In their paper, they found that women reporting sexualized work environments were six times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and experiencing unwanted advances, remarks or pressure for dates in the barracks led to a three-fold increase in risk .

Commanders set the environments in their units, Kilmartin said. But in order to foster a healthy climate, they have to know what they're up against, beginning with what does or does not constitute consent.

"We need to educate the people in power," he said. "We could stop 85 percent of it tomorrow if we could get the leaders to act differently."

Commander involvement was crucial during the implementation of the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, said Col. Gary Packard, head of the Academy's Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department.

"When we wrote that plan, it was commanders training their organizations," Packard said. "We felt that was vitally important for the leadership. ... We outsource the leadership activities of our commanders too much. We send in experts instead of training commanders to be the experts they need to be. If you want to stop this, you need commanders doing the training and being comfortable with this topic, not relying on experts."

Part of that training must include recognizing that sexual assault is not about sex; it's an act of violence, Kilmartin said.

"If I hit you over the head with a frying pan, I don't think you'd call that cooking," he said, reciting a line that appeared in an Aug. 13 New York Times column featuring him. "The scandals that happened here were described in the press as 'sex scandals.' They weren't 'sex scandals'; they were violence scandals."

But while commanders bear responsibility for establishing a safe environment, everyone in a unit plays a role, even people who are not in formal leadership positions and even in environments outside the workplace, Kilmartin said.

"What I tell people ... is, you don't have to get out your flip chart and do a 40-minute presentation," he said. "A well-placed phrase that will indicate your disapproval is enough.

"You in the military do drills all the time. A drill is something you've got to overlearn so that you can (apply it) at a moment's notice, and we have to do that around this issue," he added.

The Academy Spirit will continue to report on the Academy's efforts to prevent sexual harassment and assault. Other efforts across the Air Force are outlined at the Every Airman Counts blog at http://afsapr.dodlive.mil.