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Sexual assault prevention policy to focus on changing social norms

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (July 31, 2008) -- The Army plans to launch new initiatives for the prevention of sexual assault during a summit this September in Washington, D.C.

"The outcome of this summit will define our future prevention strategy and drive our way ahead for the campaign we will launch," said Col. Eddie Stephens, deputy director of Human Resources Policy, during a media roundtable, July 30, at the Pentagon.

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Specific details on the kinds of tactics the Army might introduce that could help the service curb instances of sexual assault and rape in the ranks were few, as the Army is still developing those tactics. But Stephens did say the overall strategy for sexual assault prevention was headed in a new direction.

"The effort is intended to change behavior, change influences on behavior, and over the long term, change the culture of our organization so our folks are adopting the traditional values we hold key to this institution we call the Army," Stephens said.

At the summit will be representatives from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. The command will be revising all of its training this fall to incorporate into it the prevention of sexual assault, said Carolyn Collins, the program manager for the Army's sexual assault and prevention response program.

"It's not only for our professional military education, but also our first responder training," she said. "And we are looking at training from the earliest possible point we can engage -- from senior ROTC, to junior ROTC, to the academy, to the new recruits -- even before they hit the ground."

Stephens said the Army has noticed in some communities that the definition of what is acceptable behavior between men and women may no longer be acceptable within the Army community.

"One of the things that have become apparent to us is that the cohort of Soldiers that we bring in the Army every year has changed," he said. "Societal norms and negative influences have changed in this population. Their norms are not like their father's or grandfather's norms of what is acceptable behavior in this society."

A Soldier, he said, may bring into the Army ideas he learned in high school about what is appropriate behavior between men and women.

"A young Soldier, 18- or 19-years-old, comes into the Army and has been in an environment with his peers, and with the influences upon him, where he believes that inappropriately touching a female is acceptable," he said. "She may have not complained about it, because of her influences and her social norms -- where in high school this happens all the time. But in the Army, that is sexual assault."

The solution, Stephens said, is reeducating Soldiers to the Army value system.

"You take the opportunity to reeducate, based on the Army values -- respect," he said. "We use the Army values as a benchmark and show that what was normal to them doesn't fit with our value system. And again we work to change people's attitudes and influence their behavior."

Some of the negative influences that might lead young men and women to develop behavioral attitudes that are contrary to Army values might include music, music videos, video games, advertising and information on the internet, Collins said.

"We're not going to be able to cut Soldiers off from those influences," she said. "But that is not our intent. Our intent is educating them. What we're driving towards, is for Soldiers to be educated and have an understanding of what this crime is and isn't -- there are a lot of myths out there."

Collins said youth seek approval from each other before they seek approval from authority, and that this trend will also drive the Army's efforts to curb sexual assault.

"We see things like the recent story where the young ladies did the bullying action -- the assaults -- then posted that on the Web site," Collins said. "What they are looking for is validation. Are their actions acceptable? Are they going to be held accountable by their peers? We know with our youth market that is coming in the Army, that they are driven by peer-to-peer accountability. That is their largest influencer. We have to look at that as we move our program forward."

It is that peer-to-peer influence the Army hopes to leverage, through top-down education and information, to help ensure Soldiers live up to the Army values, Stephens said.

"Through our research and feedback, Soldiers are telling us how best to communicate with them. We are looking at social networking. Whether it is a social networking site like YouTube or Face Book, a lot of the communication among people in that age group is anonymous," he said. "They feel validation through their anonymous ability to communicate with and maintain friendships with folks online."

Stephens also said smaller social groups are a good way to communicate new information to Soldiers.

"We know that face-to-face, in small group settings -- not necessarily overtly focused on a military sense, but on a social sense -- allows folks to communicate, provide feedback, and become involved," he said. "If we can provide an alternative focus on something that is wholesome verses something that is negative, we think there's more of a tendency for our folks to become involved."

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