There are many definitions of culture, including organizational culture. Simplified, culture is a set of norms, beliefs, and accepted behaviors shared among group members and passed from one generation to another. All cultures fit into this definition regardless of the group, be it an organization, a religion, or a nation of peoples. Sexual assault is no more a part of military culture than it is part of American culture based simply on its occurrence.
Sailors do not share and pass to new members a culture of sexual assault, and it is noteworthy that the Associated Press article never again mentioned culture. Not once did reporter Brock Vergakis support the claim leveled in the headline, suggesting it was not the author’s creation but instead a poor editorial decision to garner attention. This situation is unfortunate since AP articles are published all over the country and should contribute to a national understanding of important issues.
Unfortunately, the AP’s misleading headline contributes to a national misunderstanding of sexual assaults in the military in general and the Navy specifically. In reality, service members do not accept sexual assaults perpetrated by or against their shipmates. Navy culture teaches the exact opposite of sexual assault and other blue-on-blue crime. Cultures are passed down through generations in many forms, most often in ceremonies and rituals, songs and storytelling, and shared texts.
Military culture is no different, and our important cultural texts include our oaths of office, core values, and creeds. The Navy Core Values of honor, courage, and commitment speak against blue-on-blue crime indirectly. The Sailor’s Creed doesn’t mention these crimes by name, but nonetheless speaks to them directly in its closing sentence: “I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”
The question then becomes, why do we have so many sexual assaults if our shared norms of acceptable behavior don’t include this misconduct? The answers are not easy, but recent efforts taken by Navy leadership are a step in the right direction and will eventually lead to eliminating this crime.
One of the answers is a failure to report assaults for fear of retribution. The Navy has taken steps toward combating this fear by assuring victims’ rights to privacy and medical care, allowing them a choice between pursuing charges or only obtaining treatment, and a commitment to non-retribution. These efforts will take time to become trusted principles throughout the Navy, but they are positive measures nonetheless.
A related problem has been mishandling of complaints. While there are likely instances of maleficence, in most cases leaders have been unsure how to properly handle reports and accusations. This too is being addressed by Navy leadership through increased Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training and efforts to increase awareness of policies, directives, and victim services.
These are efforts to enforce Navy culture, not change it.
Improving these two areas—and increasing criminal prosecution of assailants—will do much to combat the problem. Sexual assault is not part of our culture, but our culture will help end it.