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Sexual assault speaker addresses common myths

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Sexual assault -- two words people don't like to talk about. However, according to a 2010 Gallup survey given to 100,000 active duty Air Force members, people should talk more. The results of the survey showed that only 17 percent of sexual assaults get reported.

To help educate leaders on base, Col. Jeffrey Flewelling, 21st Space Wing vice commander, invited David Lisak, associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to address the issues of sexual assault Oct. 12 at The Club.

Lisak is an expert in the study of motives and behaviors of rapists and murderers. "There's no profile for an offender. You can't tell what they look like," he said.

Several of the stereotypes of sexual offenders include the stranger-rape stereotype and racial stereotypes. "Most people think of stranger rape as some guy with a knife or a gun, hiding in the bushes, breaking into a house, and so forth. It happens and it's scary, we hear about it disproportionally because the media really plays it up, but it's a very rare event actually," he said.

"Our Air Force audience hears this all the time, non-stranger sexual assault, but when it actually happens, it blows everybody away," said Jeanine Arnold, sexual assault prevention and response coordinator.

According to the Department of Defense, sexual assault is intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent.

Two-thirds of offenders are serial offenders, Lisak said. "You need to understand that they are predatory. What I mean is that they identify, manipulate and exploit vulnerabilities."

According to Lisak, serial offenders look for youth, being new to an environment, emotional instability and heavy drinking. It is also very common for victims to have been abused as children. Lisak stressed the significance of this to attendees because there are a high percentage of military members with a history of abuse. "The problem isn't individuals who come into the service with a history of abuse," he said. "The services, all services, have a noble function of taking men and women out of homes where they have been abused and mistreated, and giving them a family, an education, structure -- really saving their lives."

While it's important to be aware of vulnerabilities, Lisak reminded the group that rapists make up a very small percentage of the population. "It used to be in sexual assault prevention programs they'd stand up in front of men, wag their fingers and say 'all men are potential rapists,'" he said. "That isn't true, it wasn't true, and won't be true. The vast majority of men don't do that and won't do that."

In this year's SARC training, emphasis has been placed on bystander intervention. "Research shows people are reluctant to step in and help sometimes because they don't know what to do. One of our best hopes for prevention is if the herd gathers around and protects someone who might be vulnerable, and that's what the training is all about," Arnold said.

The SARC offers two different options for reporting a sexual assault. The first option is restricted reporting. "We don't have to tell (the) chain of command and we don't have to tell law enforcement," she said. With a restricted report, the SARC helps the victim get any medical treatment or counseling they desire.

An unrestricted report opens an investigation on the case. "There are reasons to report, especially if people want to get the bad guy off the street," Arnold said. If a victim does choose to report, Arnold and the six victim advocates on base are there to support the victim through the process.

Arnold said it's important for Airmen to know if they tell someone that person may be required to report the incident. In that situation, the report will be unrestricted.

Arnold hopes that more victims will step forward and seek help.

"The official statistics tell you nothing about the scope of the problem," Lisak said.

To report a sexual assault anytime, 24/7, call 556-SARC.

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