3 Lessons the Military Can Teach Colleges About Responding to Sexual Violence

The U.S. armed forces have pioneered promising new ways to address sexual assault among its soldiers. Three prevention strategies in particular apply to institutions of higher education.

Like the military before them, institutions of higher education’s handling of sexual violence is now coming under an increasingly harsh spotlight. While on the surface it may seem like these two communities have little in common, colleges and universities could learn much from the efforts of the U.S. military in responding to and preventing sexual violence.

While it is true that the military has been under much-deserved scrutiny for its handling of a very real, very serious problem, it is also true that the military is a reflection of the greater culture. Our society has persistently and successfully normalized sexual aggression in television, film, advertising and professional athletics. It has also failed to hold more than 1 percent of accused rapists accountable through the criminal justice system.

The efforts made by the U.S. military may very well enable them to lead the way in pioneering new approaches to this persistent problem. In particular, the following prevention strategies are the most critical and transferrable to the higher education community:

1.View sexual violence prevention and response as a leadership issue
Critically, once each military branch began to take on this challenge, they gathered their senior leadership at summits and conferences featuring both external and internal experts on sexual violence. They included researchers and practitioners that represented the most well-respected in the field, but also those who were able to communicate in clear, practical terms how their work could be applied in a military context. For several years, these summits were held annually and, in some branches, included pairings of leaders with their installation’s sexual assault response professionals.

This last approach is essential. The ability to have the leader interface directly with their front-line expert provides the opportunity to problem-solve best approaches on individual installations. Additionally, it ensures that both are on the same page with regard to problem identification and solutions. It also increases the likelihood that the front-line practitioner has the backing, both in principle and resources, from the most powerful leader at their installation. It establishes them as a credible, valuable resource to the leadership as well and increases the likelihood of their direct involvement in future planning.

By contrast, on many college campuses the front-line staff, often the Women’s Center or advocacy program, rarely interface with senior university leadership. Furthermore, when they do, their leaders aren’t nearly as educated as they should be on the relevant issues, and the front-line practitioner lacks the support and resources to effectively fight the problem. A lack of educated, invested leadership communicates the message that sexual violence prevention is a compartmentalized problem that only one department needs to handle, not one that should be adopted by the entire institution as part of its core mission and responsibility. Campus leadership must be out in front about this issue’s importance and foster collaborative teams to respond coherently and intentionally.

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