Sexual Assault Prevention: Accelerating change in our culture

By Capt. James Wyatt
Executive Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet

With the abundance of episodic national media coverage surrounding sexual assault events within the U.S. military and the focus from the President and congressional leaders, even the most casual observer of our national defense affairs understands that sexual assault is one of our Armed Services greatest challenges.  This issue has our civilian and military leaders’ unified attention with efforts underway on several fronts to improve our performance regarding prevention, victim care and adjudication.

The graphic logo to illustrate Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) initiative.

In May 2013, the Secretary of Defense provided a memorandum to senior Department of Defense leaders outlining his 2013 DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Strategic Plan.[1]  In his memorandum, SECDEF made enhancing commander accountability a top priority by directing service chiefs, through their secretaries, to develop methods to assess and hold commanders accountable for their ability to establish command climates of dignity and respect and incorporate SAPR principles.[2]  Within the U.S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) has established the Director of the 21st Century Office as CNO SAPR Officer with the charge of implementing navy-wide SAPR initiatives including pushing the “Great Lakes” pilot program to other fleet concentration areas, requiring more persistent and engaging senior unit leadership involvement in off-duty locations.[3]  In another demonstration of senior leader prioritization of this issue, CNO recently wrote Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Sen. Carl Levin, in November 2013 to describe actions the Navy has taken for SAPR.  CNO outlined five specific lines of effort: prevention; investigation; accountability; advocacy; and victim support and building trust in the system.[4]

There should be no question in anyone’s mind; Navy’s senior leaders are focused on the issue and leading change in our culture.  What may not be as well-known, is senior Navy leaders have been working this issue consistently for some time.  In 1997, during his testimony to the SASC, then SECNAV, John H. Dalton stated, “We promulgated our first sexual harassment prevention policy in November 1982, and since that time, the Navy and Marine Corps have worked hard to get the word out about our policies and programs regarding sexual harassment and other unacceptable behaviors.”[5]     Since 1982, Navy has reinforced its commitment to SAPR throughout the subsequent years by introducing innovative programs to address conditions that lead to sexual assault, response and victim care.  Last year, we focused on improving our performance in each area of the chain of actions of SAPR – prevention and intervention to response and victim care to adjudication.  Improvement in each area will help change our culture, but the area that matters the most is the left side of the chain of actions – prevention and intervention.  The right type of focus in this area has the greatest potential to change our culture.

Succeeding at Prevention?

Last year, one of the cornerstones of Navy-wide prevention initiatives was awareness and prevention training for the fleet.  This was executed through focused leadership sessions with flag officers, all khaki, the triad, and also included training during command leadership courses and training in the Senior Enlisted Academy.  We trained our senior leaders to a standard then directed our senior leaders to provide training to the rest of the fleet, typically via triad facilitated sessions within their respective units until 100 percent of our Sailors were trained.  This approach enforced SECDEF’s direction regarding commanders’ accountability to their respective command climates and highlighted leadership commitment to changing our culture.  We further solidified senior leadership commitment through other SAPR initiatives including quarterly 4-star SAPR discussions with CNO; establishment of first flag reporting to assess command climate factors; formal bi-weekly senior OPNAV leadership review of incident reporting, trends and status of SAPR programs; establishment of SAPR officers billets on senior staffs; monthly regional flag officer meetings focused on sharing of best practices.[6]

Emphasis at the senior officer level is important; consistent standards of behavior articulated and reinforced by leadership is a necessary ingredient for setting the proper conditions for sexual assault prevention and intervention.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes organizational culture as “the way the group works” and include the “customs” and “values” shared by the group.[7]  In the military and Navy, we value each member (Sailor) in our organization’s “right to be treated with dignity and respect”.[8]  Sexual assault is incompatible with our values and that is the message senior leaders have consistently conveyed up and down our ranks.  Yet, data indicates, the rate of sexual assault incidents continue to rise – approximately 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 the previous year.[9]  This reported increase in assaults is partly a result of successful awareness training efforts where victims have gained more trust in the system, can make confidential reports and are more likely to report incidents.[10]  Nonetheless, our goal is elimination of sexual assault in the workplace and off-duty.  So, absent a more accurate metric for recording sexual assaults, we must use reduction in reporting of incidents as the standard for progress.  Senior leaders have set conditions in place to accomplish this, but we can’t seem to get there fast enough, even with engaged senior leaders providing close oversight.  There is another way to speed up progress through innovative leadership.

Unquestionably, senior leadership is a necessary ingredient for success, but it is not the only ingredient, nor the most critical ingredient; the most critical ingredient is leadership within the group who are most impacted by sexual assaults, 26-year-old Sailors and younger.  While senior leadership is key to establishing standards and setting the conditions for our culture, the 26 and under group has significant influence on how standards of conduct are interpreted and executed.  Their influence on our culture is constant, ubiquitous and, therefore, the dominant factor for “the way the group works” and how quickly we execute change to our culture.  To understand how critical their influence is, you just have to follow the track of a new accession into the fleet: this group’s influence begins with sponsorship correspondence to the new accession who has recently received orders to a unit; it continues with the type of peer welcome the newly assigned Sailor receives upon arrival to his duty station; it continues with how his shipmates interact with each other in the work place and berthing compartment; and it is reinforced with how his shipmates plan for, behave and take care of each other on liberty.  Indeed, getting the commitment, right focus and energy within this group will have the most impact towards changing “the way the group works” – tipping our Navy’s culture regarding sexual assault prevention.  So, the million dollar question is how do we leverage this most critical ingredient?

Leveraging the Few

In his #1 National Bestseller book “The Tipping Point,” renowned author, Malcolm Gladwell, provides a unique way of looking at trends in social behavior.  He focuses on areas where we have seen the course of human behavior altered to dramatically different paths, “….mysterious changes that mark everyday life,” calling these course changes “epidemics.”[11]  Epidemics are where “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”[12]  Gladwell asserts there are three characteristics of epidemics “one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment…”[13]  Gladwell describes the change that occurs at that one dramatic moment as the “Tipping Point” and deemed that trait as the most important of the three characteristics.[14]  Gladwell asserts the Tipping Point can be accelerated by the involvement of a small number of key individuals – “Law of the Few.”[15]  An innovative leadership approach to accelerating our culture change regarding sexual assault can be found in our employment of Gladwell’s principle of Law of the Few.

Senior leadership and existing SAPR programs have set the conditions for change, though measured progress is not occurring fast enough.  We can now make the small investment by leveraging the “few” to accelerate that change to the Tipping Point.  We can get to the Tipping Point by using key individuals to spread the way we think, act, and guard against sexual assault through the ranks all the way to the deck-plates.

Gladwell talked about the select few in three categories – people with large social networks, people who know a lot of information about certain topics, and people who are good at persuading others.[16]  Where do we find people like that in our Navy population?  The answer is, they are our junior Sailors and officers; the select few are our Sailors that are most impacted by sexual assaults (26 years old and younger).  They comprise the critical social network, they have been trained on preventative and intervention measures, and the most credible salespersons are amongst their peers.  In some places, we are already leveraging members of this group through unit leadership connection with Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions organizations, a peer to peer mentorship organization administered by and for Sailors 25 years old and younger.[17]  This organization is comprised of motivated junior Sailors who want to be part of solutions to problems within their peer group.  We not only need to take advantage of their motivation, we need to creatively employ other members within this age category towards sexual assault prevention, including those who may be less motivated towards work related problem solving.

The value of Gladwell’s theory for “law of the few” is that a small investment can yield big dividends.  The price and potential for success should compel us to consider how to apply his theory.  I offer two supplemental leadership approaches to our existing SA prevention programs.  One, senior leaders must formally charge and integrate select high performing 26 years old and younger Sailors into existing SAPR support structures; two, senior leaders must use informal and less visible methods to deputize unofficial 26 years old and younger Sailors as SA climate assessors.  The key differences between the two approaches are formal versus informal employment and work performance versus social environment familiarity for members in each category.

For members of the group that would be formally integrated into the SAPR tribe, careful consideration to record of performance, maturity and credibility with shipmates are key criteria for selection.  Their understanding of programs and reliability are important characteristics for their role and integration.  Like maintenance and flight instructors and NATOPS evaluators in naval aviation, who enforce standardization and provide peer assessment within aviation squadrons, this select group can assess sexual assault prevention environmental conditions through peer interaction, then provide immediate feedback to the commander, including change recommendations to existing programs.  Members of this group must have proven records of stellar performance, be known for compliance with organizational standards and be recognized for their integrity amongst peers.  They should be formally integrated into all meetings involving SAPR stakeholders and have direct access to each member of the triad.  As with QDIs, QAs, aircrew instructors and NATOPS evaluators in the squadrons, their charge should be standardization and compliance.  This select group would have its most impact within the work-spaces.

Members of the second category of informal sexual assault assessors should have slightly different selection criteria.  Members of this group should be selected because they are the real information brokers and master salespersons.  They do not necessarily need to have the best performance records or be known for strict adherence to organizational standards.  This group should be selected for their exceptional social skills.  Common traits might include: they know where all of the “hot” spots are in town or the next liberty port; they attend the biggest parties and are amongst the last to leave; they have several friends within the Navy and out in town; they tend to be charismatic within their peer groups; and often boast of their social interactions.  This select group, if properly convicted and rewarded, will have their biggest impact in the off-duty environment frequented by Sailors, because they place great value on their knowledge of this environment.  The leadership challenge will be how to gain their conviction to leverage their knowledge of that environment.  Formal integration into SAPR meetings and traditional forms of rewards likely will not motivate this “few”; but routine access to unit leadership and public recognition might.  Their access with leadership does not have to be formal, but it should be often and in a forum where members of this group feel at ease to speak freely.  Leveraging this select “few” can be our most powerful catalyst for “tipping” our sexual assault prevention culture.

Employment of Gladwell’s principle of “Law of the Few” is not an alternative approach but a catalyst for accelerating change.  Whether using this principle or some other approach, we have to figure out how to get the 26 year old and younger group to “care” about changing our culture as much as, if not more than, our senior leaders do if we want to see measured progress soon.

Last Word on Caring about the Problem 

Gladwell talks about the importance of getting bystanders to “care” and intervene when witnessing distressing acts.  Gladwell makes this point by citing studies performed by psychologists Bibb Latane of Columbia University and John Darley of New York University to understand the “bystander problem” – Where individuals observe another individual in distress, but fail to intervene, even when their intervention will bring no harm to themselves.[18]  Through a series of person-in-distress experiments, Latane and Darley detected a pattern for predicting when bystanders will intervene.  It turns out, the smaller the number of individuals witnessing the distressing situation, the more likely a bystander will intervene.  When individuals know that many others have observed the same distressing situation, “responsibility for acting is diffused.”[19] If individuals know they are the only witness, then they are more likely to “care” about the individual in distress and intervene.

Leadership is caring about issues that matter for combat readiness, taking care of shipmates and mission accomplishment.  Members of the 26 year old and younger group understand those principles; they execute them through leadership at their level every day, at sea and ashore.  When executing their assignments, junior Sailors routinely act and lead without hesitation in distressing situations, whether in large or small groups; because they know what is at stake when we are working collectively towards mission accomplishment.  Until we get that same level of understanding and caring for sexual assault prevention mission, our culture will only change in small increments.  We have to find a way to get this group to care more about sexual assault prevention.

[1] Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense Memorandum for Secretaries of the Military Departments, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, Chiefs of Military Services, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Counsel of the Department of defense, May 06 2013.

[3] Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert, NAVADMIN 181/13, 181228Z Jul 13.

[4] Chief of Naval Operations, Letter to The Honorable Carl Levin, Chairman, Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, November 18, 2013.

[5] A Holistic Navy Approach to Curbing Sexual Harassment, Defense Issues: Volume 12, Number 8, p 1, available at:

[6] Discussion with Pacific Fleet’s SAPRO, February 10, 2014 and NAVADMIN 181/13.

[7] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, February 7, 2014.

[9] Jennifer Steinhauer,  Sexual Assaults in Military Raise Alarms in Washington, New York Times, May 7, 2013.

[10] Discussion with Pacific Fleet’s SAPRO, February 10, 2014.

[11] Malcom Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2000, p. 7.

[16] Ibid, p. 38, 49, 66.

[17] Chief of Naval Operations, Letter to The Honorable Carl Levin, Chairman, Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, November 18, 2013.

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Sexual Assault Prevention: Accelerating change in our culture