Stop blaming victims of sexual assault for sexual assault.

That was the message delivered through an interactive Sexual Assault Awareness Month presentation put on by Catharsis Productions and hosted by the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Sexual Assault and Prevention Office April 1 to service members and civilian employees on the Fort Myer portion of the joint base.

The presentation, titled "Beat the Blame Game," offered the audience a "provocative presentation" to change perceptions about victim-blaming and challenge assumptions and stereotypes about sexual assault victims, according to event organizers.

The event took place in Fort Myer's Town Hall, where JBM-HH Commander Col. Mike Henderson implored attendees to acknowledge individual roles in preventing and reacting to sexual assault.

"We all have a part in combating sexual harassment and sexual assault and this month offers us an excellent opportunity to focus attention on our roles," said Henderson during his opening remarks.

The presentation emphasized this year's Sexual Assault Awareness Month theme of Eliminate Sexual Assault: Know Your Part. Do Your Part. The 90-minute presentation served as the joint base's kick-off event for raising awareness about sexual assault throughout April.

Yolanda King, JBM-HH sexual assault response coordinator, said that blaming rape victims for what happens to them silences their voices and makes them feel unsafe. That makes it more difficult for victims to come forward to report the crimes and share their stories, she said.

"Blaming the victim marginalizes [them]... and it fails to hold the appropriate person accountable, the offender," said King, JBM-HH sexual assault response coordinator.

The purpose of the presentation was to sharpen attendees' discernment on how victim blaming is defined, as well as the underlying assumptions that contribute to shifting blame on victims versus perpetrators, according to Heather Imrie, guest speaker and Catharsis Productions' director of program management.

Unlearning can crush assumptions

Imrie, who has worked with male and female sex abuse victims for more than 20 years, presented what she characterized as research-backed findings as to why cultures of victim blaming in America develop, especially in the military. Her presentation included the most common reasons why people blame victims and support perpetrators, and then dismantled those arguments through logic and tapping the military's core values.

Imrie said that people in general need to unlearn worldviews that give people excuses to blame rape victims, gender stereotypes and their unhealthy ideas about what characterizes a consensual sexual encounter. Unlearning and crushing assumptions was a central theme throughout her presentation

Imrie said there were two main worldviews that can contribute to victim blaming: The Hindsight Theory (HT) and The Just World Theory (JWT). Outlining HT, Imrie said people often want to inform sexual abuse victims of what they should have done, or not, to prevent the incident.
People with JWT assumptions understand the world to be a just and ordered place. They believe that the victims of rape put themselves in the position to be raped and could have prevented it. These people often say things like, "Well you shouldn't have been drunk" or question and judge a victim for being alone in the place where the incident occurs, she said.

Imrie said when people approach sexual assault victims with these underlying assumptions, they by-default align themselves with the perpetrators by associating fault with the victim.

Worldviews and stereotypes that put blame on victims are learned through friends, parents, media and even religion, according to Imrie.

"It's our parents our friends who give us our first sex advice, which is usually bad," said Imrie. "Our parents' advice about sex is, 'Don't ever have it,' which is unrealistic, and then the media gives us unrealistic portrayals that everyone is always having sex, which also is not true."

She said romantic comedies are famous for depicting men and women lying and manipulating each other in order to have sex. Such television shows and films communicate that men should get women intoxicated so that they have sex with them.

"We have to unlearn all that," said Imrie.

Men can be victims, too

She also talked about men who have been sexually abused. She said it is hard for men who are victims of rape to speak out because they understand themselves to be warriors who are tough and they are surrounded by like-minded men.

"If you look at men who are victims of sexual violence in the military, almost all of them say, 'I never knew this could happen to me. I didn't know that I could be raped,'" explained Imrie.
Imrie said the warrior narrative has to be reframed differently to create a culture that encourages men to ask for help.

"If we are going to unlearn that, we have to start with affirming that it is O.K. for men to be the complicated, emotional creatures that they are," she said. "Even saying that sounds feminine, some would say that I am making this a feminine argument, which is nonsense."

Despite the steep hill of unlearning, Imrie said she is convinced that people can unlearn these kinds of stereotypes. Generational adaptation to continual digital, technological change is proof that this hard work of unlearning can be accomplished, she said.

"So we can unlearn these things, and we can get centered on what healthy sexual activity is, so it is easy for women and men to spot what unwanted, aggressive, violent sexual behavior is," she said. "That rape is not sex by any means and when we understand that sex is two people wanting to come together, instead of sex being by any means necessary, it will make it easy for us to [become] interveners."

Pentagram Staff Writer Delonte Harrod can be reached at dharrod@dcmilitary.com.