This Female Veteran Knows How the U.S. Military Can End Sexual Assault


When Jennifer Stevens, a female armed forces veteran, saw a poster titled "Preventing Sexual Assault Is Everyone's Duty!" taped up in the women's restroom at the Ohio Air Force base, she decided to take a stand. Stevens pasted a letter on top of the poster informing victims what resources they could use, and criticized the victim-blaming attitude that the poster conveyed. The poster had been created by the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base sexual response coordinator, and provided a list of ways to avoid getting raped, implying that it was the victim's responsibility to prevent sexual assault.

Similar to this list, a list published in Cosmopolitan instructed readers to keep their guard up, stick with friends, and watch their drinks so that they could avoid getting raped. This "how-to-avoid-rape" list is something all women are familiar with, having being repeatedly told that rape is something that women are responsible for, and that it is the victim's fault if she gets raped after drinking too much or wearing shorts or going out after a certain time.

This issue of victim blaming is symbolic of a larger problem: the rampant rape culture present in society where rape is trivialized and normalized, and where women who get raped are slut-shamed and told that they were asking for it. As a result of this rape culture, women who report sexual assaults are constantly interrogated and blamed for something that is not their fault. Rape victims need to be taken seriously and supported, not questioned and blamed for their traumatic ordeal.

Society tends to shift the blame on the victim, and most rapists trivialize their actions. Ariel Castro's horrifying testimony is an extreme example of rape culture, where a rapist feels that it is justifiable to suggest that the women he abducted, tortured, and raped were "asking for it." His case might be extreme, but the way he brought in the victims' sexual histories and claimed that the sex was consensual is something a lot of rapists do.

Victim-blaming and holding women (or men) accountable does not do anything to prevent rape; it just makes it harder for victims to gain support. After seeing the accusatory poster that was created as part of the military’s sexual assault prevention strategy, Jennifer Stevens explained why such a technique would only backfire. She said, "I think this is part of the reason victims are afraid to report incidents. If you're a victim and you've done one of the things on that list, you now feel like it’s your fault that you were sexually assaulted."

The most successful anti-sexual assault efforts are the ones that focus on potential assailants rather than potential victims. Incidences of sexual assault at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois plummeted by 60% after just two years of experimental reforms to its rape awareness and prevention programs — instead of instructing women to avoid rape, the base encourages men to self-police by monitoring their and their friends' alcohol intake and intervening when it comes to inappropriate behavior. 

While authorities might provide rape prevention tips for victims with good intentions, such lists reinforce the notion that victims of sexual assault are accountable for their and their rapist's actions. I'm not saying that such safety guidelines should be ignored — in our society, women have no choice not to. But restricting women's behavior and leaving them in a constant state of paranoia is not the best way to deal with rape. Instead of telling women to avoid getting raped, society should simply tell people not to rape.