KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. – Sexual assault and harassment are rightfully in the forefront of Defense Department and Air Force leadership concerns. Leaders speak continually about the damages sexual assault and harassment inflict upon Airmen, the unit and the mission. Their command emphasis helps highlight a problem endemic in our ranks.
At the end of the day, to combat this problem, all Airmen must look within themselves: their attitudes toward sex, the morals with which they were raised, learned gender roles and biases, as well as the lifetime consequences of their actions.
I have the privilege of working with a broad array of Airmen who have Air Force experience ranging from nine weeks to 40 years. These Airmen from all walks of life and age groups represent varying attitudes toward sex and what constitutes normal limits to pursuing sexual encounters.
What one has learned as an acceptable behavior or attitude is often at odds with the behaviors expected of our Airmen. It is not okay to grab and touch people, to be “huggy,” to make sexual innuendos toward someone or to discuss sexual preferences or activities in the workplace. It is time for all of us to grow up and realize we each bring a unique strength to the mission void of any sexual overtones.
The learned behaviors and attitudes such as “women/men are only good for one thing” are not appropriate and are harmful to the individuals subjected to these views, and to the organization as a whole. Additionally, it discounts the human worth of the person holding those views. Imagine believing a person is only put on earth to provide pleasure; it demeans all mankind. The Air Force is better than that; it must be. We owe our fellow Airmen the dignity and respect they earned by signing up to put their lives on the line for others, but also as fellow human beings.
Airmen, both male and female, must understand the laws that govern sexual assault and the often life-impacting consequences that can occur when failing to examine one’s attitudes and perceptions. Jail time and permanent labels of sexual offender or predator will follow them for the rest of their lives. Getting drunk or the perception that one is “just joking around” are not excuses for belittling or criminal behavior. The world is changing and we must change with it. The law is clear that consent must be given and by someone who is not incapacitated. Predatory behavior and forced sexual contact is wrong, illegal and particularly despicable when the victim is unable to give consent. These actions will not be tolerated and have no place in the Air Force or society at large. They destroy both the victims’ and perpetrators’ lives.
As leaders, supervisors and coworkers, we need to examine our reaction to hearing of sexual assault and harassment. Through my career I have heard, “He/she was just drunk or being silly;” They didn’t really mean anything;” and “Don’t ruin their lives.” We can no longer tolerate the attitude of “kids will be kids” or “they had a few drinks and didn’t know what they were doing.” Alcohol or immaturity is not a defense. Airmen must be held responsible for their actions, and if we do not confront this behavior it is reinforced and will continue.
I encourage each of you to take an introspective look at the sexual attitudes and expectations you have and compare them to the laws that govern sexual assault and harassment. Which side of the law and jail bars would you be on? One night can ruin your life, the victim’s and many others. At the end of the day, remember you joined the Air Force to serve, not to be part of the problem. This is a difficult issue – the changing of perceptions and attitudes of acceptable behavior. But it is paramount to the mission and the Airmen who have dedicated themselves in defense of our country that we succeed.