Sexual harassment victims serving in the Air Force and Space Force will now have more privacy and control over reporting incidents under a new policy the service introduced to protect service members.
The policy, which went into place Sept. 30, allows Department of the Air Force service members to make an unrestricted sexual harassment report, which would trigger an investigation with the base’s Equal Opportunity office, or a restricted report, which allows for confidential disclosure of an incident and doesn’t notify the chain of command while still offering the victim advocacy services. Previously, those two options were limited to sexual assault cases.
“For service members victimized by this harmful behavior, it can be crippling, preventing them from coming forward out of fear of further harassment or the perceived lack of support from their leaders, or co-workers,” Brig. Gen. Debra A. Lovette, director of integrated resilience, said in a statement. “This new policy will allow service members to make a report confidentially, if they choose, while still receiving support and care …”
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The policy change also now allows members to seek services for both sexual harassment and sexual assault from the same office, a news release published Tuesday. Previously, victims were often referred to file a sexual harassment complaint to Equal Opportunity but did not offer as many avenues for support.
The Navy made a similar change in policy this past July, which allowed sailors to make a “restricted,” or confidential, report even if they’ve told officers in their chain of command, including their commanding officer, about a sexual assault. The move was meant to give victims more flexibility and control over dealing with their case by granting them access to medical treatment and advocacy options without taking away the choice to have the incident investigated at a later time.
In the Air Force, a restricted report is confidential and offers resources from a sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) or sexual assault prevention and response (SAPR) victim advocate but would not loop in the Equal Opportunity office or notify the service member’s command “unless there is written consent from the service member or, if there is a clear and present risk to the health and safety to the service member or another person,” according to a Tuesday news release from the service detailing the changes.
The new policy comes as the Air Force reckons with reports of frequent instances of physical and mental abuse in the ranks, and on the heels of high-profile cases in the military, such as the sexual harassment and subsequent murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in 2020.
At the beginning of the year, under an order from President Joe Biden and prompted by the outcry following Guillen’s death, sexual harassment became its own unique crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Findings of a survey compiled into a wide-ranging report released in November 2021 by the services found that more than half of Air Force and Space Force personnel experienced some type of mental or physical abuse while on orders.
Of the nearly 70,000 active-duty personnel, reservists and civilians who responded to the survey, roughly two-thirds of the women and 48% of the men reported “interpersonal violence,” ranging from psychological incidents like rude jokes or belittling and bullying to examples of physical abuse such as sexual assault, dating violence, family violence or workplace violence.
Additionally, a 2021 Pentagon report released in late August found that 8% of active-duty women and about 1.5 % of active-duty men indicated experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact.
The new policy is the latest in recent orders from the Department of the Air Force aimed at streamlining victim advocate services.
On Aug. 1, the service launched the “Integrated Response Co-Location Pilot program,” which placed seven bases’ sexual assault advocates and religious counselors under one roof at each base.
Stateside, the pilot program launched at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas; Vandenberg Space Force Base, California; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Hill Air Force Base, Utah; and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
Overseas, the initiative is being tested at Misawa Air Base, Japan, and also at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the U.K.
“Sexual harassment does not reflect who we are as an organization and has no place in the military,” Lovette said in a statement.
— Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
Related: Air Force Launches Program to Help Sexual Assault, Harassment Survivors at 7 Bases
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