5 Jun 2018

Preventing the Growing Cancer of Sexual Assault

Authored by: Robert D. Shadley, Major General, U.S. Army (Ret), a consultant, speaker, and author.


My June 2017 blog focused primarily on sexual misconduct in the U.S. military, using the experience that we gained uncovering multiple cases of sexual assault and rape at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, in 1996 and 1997, and that is documented  in my book The GAMe: Unraveling a Military Sex Scandal.

Many of the points made in that blog remain valid today as it becomes more obvious every day that the cancer of sexual assault — and its precursor, sexual harassment — is by no means restricted to the military. The abuse of power by men and women over other men and women finds its home in many organizations and individuals — many more than have previously surfaced. As President Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “If you want to test a man’s [woman’s] character, give him [her] power.” Note: Words in brackets added by author.

Current statistics provided by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reveal:

  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
  • 20–25% of college women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex while in college.

In April 2015, I attended a symposium that focused on sexual misconduct by priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota. The Vicar General (VG) of the Archdiocese shared with the audience the story of his first conversation with a young man (YM) who had been sexually assaulted by a priest. My notes show the conversation went like this after the young man finished his account:

VG:   “Well, what can I do to help?”

YM:   “The first thing you can do, Father, is never ask that question again.”

VG:   “Why do you say that, son?”

YM:   “When you ask that question, you are telling me that you can do something I can’t do, which means you are telling me that you have more power than I do, and that’s what got me in this situation in the first place. Now, Father, if you want to ask me a question, ask me what I can do to help you to make sure this never happens again.”

Also, at this same conference, the Reverend Billy Graham’s grandson presented the results of a study conducted by Liberty University. The study found there is more sexual misconduct by Protestant ministers than Catholic priests. The difference is that in Protestant churches the majority of the cases are male ministers on female parishioners, while in Catholic churches it’s priests on young men.

The abuse of power by those who have power, or think they have power, is a common thread among all the sectors of our society where the cancer of sexual assault resides — military, religious organizations, athletic teams, educational institutions, industry, businesses, etc. Not all members of the military, Hollywood producers, educators, athletes, etc., are sexual predators. While the percentage of perpetrators in any sector is quite small (e.g., 1–2% in the military), these individuals do devastating and life-changing damage to the survivors and negatively impact the organization as a whole. Organizational leaders who avoid taking action to rid the organization of perpetrators do, in fact, allow this thread to grow in diameter, length and strength, resulting in this misconduct being regarded as commonplace and part of the organizational culture.

A vivid example of sexual assault becoming commonplace was provided to me by a woman who asked to speak to me after one of my presentations at an Army installation. She said:

“I know you were using your experience at Aberdeen in 1996–97 as the basis for your talk, but I was a student at the Ordnance School in the mid-1980s, and the same thing you talked about was going on then — female students were being forced by drill sergeants to sleep with them. It happened to me.

“My first duty assignment after leaving the school was in Korea. When I reported in, the women who were already in the unit told me I would have to undergo ‘personal in-processing’ by the first sergeant.

“They told me that I only had to sleep with him one time and that would be it. I did, and then when I went to my next duty assignment in Germany, I again had to sleep with the first sergeant as part of ‘personal in-processing.’”

This misconduct had become ingrained and commonplace in the organization.

Following my discussion with this brave woman, I recalled a comment made to me by a senior civilian employee as we left our farewell dinner at Aberdeen in 1997. This employee told me he was sorry that I had to go through unraveling the “Aberdeen Sex Scandal” since drill sergeants forcing trainees to sleep with them had been going on there for many years. He went on to say he was glad someone had finally done something about it. This turned out to be a telling example of the lack of bystander intervention.

I respectfully submit that what we encountered was not isolated to Aberdeen in particular or the military in general. The good work started by President and Mrs. Obama in 2012 and most recently the #MeToo movement brought to light just how widespread is the cancer of sexual assault, fueled by the abuse of power.

I have begun to stress in my presentations the prevention of sexual assault. We have gotten much better at getting survivors to come forward and making sure they receive proper physical and mental care. We are certainly not there yet with regard to reporting, but in my mind the best thing we can do is negate the need for reporting and care by preventing the cancer from developing in the first place.

While this is a lofty goal and one that most likely will never be attained, for every assault we can prevent we reduce the number of survivors who, in most cases, are forever affected by the horror of sexual assault. What follows are my thoughts on prevention — not an all-inclusive list, but certainly some key ones.

It all starts with leadership!

My definition of leadership is the “art of getting things done through others when others don’t think they can do it, don’t want to do it and/or think it is inherently dangerous to do so.”

In her excellent book 24/7: The First Person You Must Lead Is You, Retired Brigadier General Rebecca (Becky) Halstead makes the point loud and clear that each of us must do the hard right, not the easy wrong, starting with our personal actions. In other words, we must all take personal responsibility for the way we conduct ourselves. It is obvious to subordinates when a leader is a “Do as I say, not as I do” type person. Leaders must be able to say, “Do as I do.”

Where does one find the inner strength to do the hard right, not the easy wrong? Character! As famous Purdue University basketball player and then head basketball coach at UCLA John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

With good character people know right from wrong, and if they see wrong, they call out that bad behavior. This is known as “bystander intervention.” Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” Real friends don’t let friends drive while intoxicated, steal or sexually harass and/or assault others.

The buddy system

Another key to the prevention of sexual assault is to make the military principle of “never leave a fallen comrade behind” a part of your everyday life. It is common social behavior among young men and women to attend social functions as a group instead of paired as dates. If one of the members of the group has too much to drink and passes out at a party, the others need to get that person home safely and not leave him or her alone, a helpless victim of potential sexual predators. This leads to applying another Army principle to one’s personal life — have a battle buddy, someone with whom you go out and who has your back to make sure you are not taken advantage of and will ensure you get home safely.

Most survivors of sexual assault know their assailant. In the military, we call this “fratricide” — causing death or injury to those in your own organization. The prevention of fratricide is, in my humble opinion, another key to preventing sexual assault. We all need to be tuned into those around us and be aware of potential threats from within our family of friends.

At the macro level, senior leaders must take aggressive action to rid the organization of the troublemakers and poor performers. Too often when it becomes necessary to downsize an organization, the course of action chosen by the senior leadership is the elimination of a subordinate organization. My good friend Dr. Fred Zimmerman, an expert on organizational change, told me that, when required to do so, Winnebago used to reduce the workforce by something they called “restructure by subtraction.”

They would identify the least effective workers and let them go. While this approach does require some retraining of those who remain, it appears to me that organizations like the military would be better off using restructure by subtraction — get the bad ones out — than eliminating units. In my experience as a leader, I often spent 80% of my time on the 20% of the members of the organization who were “bad.” The Winnebago approach would allow the leader more time to spend with the “good ones.”

The four C’s

The bottom line is we are all leaders — first of ourselves and then of others. What makes a good leader? I have come to the conclusion over the past several years, upon observing and listening to many different leaders, that a good leader possesses the four C’s — Competence, Character, Chemistry and Curiosity. If we all have the four C’s in the leading of ourselves, and others, we can make a positive impact by helping to prevent the cancer of sexual assault and its precursor, sexual harassment.

  • COMPETENCE: Know what right looks like. Set and enforce the highest standards of conduct for oneself and the organization.
  • CHARACTER: As Mark Twain said, “Always do right. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
  • CHEMISTRY: We are all part of an organization or group for which we must care.
  • CURIOSITY: If we are competent, possess good character and understand that we succeed or fail as part of a team, we will use our curiosity to be on alert and take action to protect ourselves, our friends and fellow workers from sexual predators and other bad influences.

Saint Francis of Assisi said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” My charge to each reader of this blog is to be a candle and, if you can’t be a candle, be a mirror and reflect someone else’s light in the battle to eliminate from our society the cancer of sexual assault and its precursor, sexual harassment.

About the author

Robert D. Shadley is a retired U.S. Army major general who served in key leadership and staff positions during his 33-year active-duty career. He is the author of The GAMe: Unraveling a Military Sex Scandal, which documents sexual misconduct and abuse of power at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

General Shadley’s book is available from Amazon and via his website www.shadleyeditions.com where, by entering SHARP as code, you will receive an autographed copy and a 30% discount.

5 Responses

  1. Karen Morris

    It is odd and perplexing to me that professionals who write about organizational sexual assault and abuse of power never mention the drive for sexual satisfaction behind the use of force. Reference to the natural need or drive for sex is rarely mentioned, in fact, it is as if the need for sex were not even an aspect of what can later become sexual assault, dependant on the individuals involved. What is happening in our armed forces and religious institutions is not new. Armies have always entrapped women and children and forced them to serve the sexual needs of male armies. Military sexual abuse is another, modern form of sex trafficking and sexual slavery that meets the sexual demands of men who expect this as their right. This is a human sexual problem, or to put it another way, the problem of sex and aggression that as long as we avoid conversations about our own sexual needs, without shame, we will continue to brutally impose on others.

    1. annamarie jones

      I tried clicking the email from Perry Schwartz and it did not work, maybe because it wasn’t meant for me. Years ago, my brother came out of the Marines a Captain & he brought his Marine training literature home & I read it & of course in there was the Marine Corps Leadership traits, which i thought was excellent, but it is obviously a case of do as I say & not as I do, which makes me wonder if they
      even have any training in leadership or do they just leave it to the recruits to read these traits & they aren’t reading it. the literature also gave stories of individual military men showing courage against overwhelming odds, which left me awestruck. so these men that are sexually assaulting subordinates are not showing any awestruck courage. How sad.

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