WIESBADEN, Germany -- "Are you sure you want to go out this late at night? You may want to consider wearing flats instead of high heeled shoes, something you can run away better in. Carry your keys in between your fingers to use as a potential weapon. You were out at midnight, what did you expect to happen?"
In the seventies, questions and statements like these drove a group of women to reclaim their right to safety, no matter what time of day, and the Take Back the Night initiative, a march against violence against women, was born.
"The assumption was that if a woman was out late at night, she was taking her life into her own hands at that point," said Sarah Gordon, the sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) for Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, U.S. Army Europe.
Forty years later, the Take Back the Night movement is still thriving, although now with a focus on safety for all genders, Gordon said. On October 3, 2019, the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) office on Clay Kaserne, Wiesbaden, Germany, hosted the Take Back the Night 10K, 5K and 1K on base for service members, families and members of the community.
Participants ranged from Soldiers of all ranks to parents with their babies in strollers to the Wiesbaden High School's cross-country team. Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Truchon, the Wiesbaden Garrison Command Sergeant Major, said the event wasn't just about the race, but also about the reason the participants were gathered.
"This is an extremely important event. Sexual harassment and assault continues to be a problem in our Army," said Truchon. "It's a scourge not only on our Soldiers, but also our families. The way we address this problem is what we are doing right now, groups of people standing together in solidarity to take a stand and say that we're not going to put up with this any longer."
Each of the participants in the event carried a glow stick with them as they ran to represent shining a light on the awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault prevention.
When it comes to highlighting the prevention of sexual assault and domestic abuse, Gordon said a focus on offender behavior is significantly more important than risk reduction tactics, such as avoiding going out at night, as the latter risks blaming the victim and insinuating that there was something they could have done to prevent their attack.
"Stigmatizing just does not work. The thing that prevents sexual assault is awareness of what sexual assault is and choosing not to assault," said Gordon. "It is also important for bystanders to get involved and intervene when they see something that doesn't quite look right and ask things like, 'Are you okay with what's going on here?'"
Gordon also emphasized the importance of remembering that all genders can be victims of sexual assault. According to the Department of Defense's annual report on Sexual Assault for the fiscal year 2018, 6.3% of active duty men reported cases of sexual harassment. Gordon said many of these cases are under the guise of "hazing," a type of harassment involving humiliation and degradation as a sort of initiation, in which the victim is promised acceptance after having gone through the abuse.
In addition to events such as Take Back the Night, Gordon said the best way to combat sexual harassment and assault is to talk about it year-round, whether it be in the barracks, the workplace or out with friends, as well as not allowing a hostile work culture or inappropriate humor that can make for fertile ground for sexual assault.
When assisting someone who comes forward after an incident of sexual harassment or assault, two of the most helpful things you can do are letting them know that you believe them and taking a pause to ensure their wellbeing, Gordon said.
"One of the things that is just absolutely devastating about sexual assault is that a person's ability to choose what happens to their own body is completely taken away from them," Gordon said.
Gordon said it is impactful to give them that control and bodily autonomy back by asking them what it is they need before jumping in with advice.
Posters and static displays outside the Wiesbaden Gym at the Take Back the Night event echoed Gordon's messages of hope and reminded anyone who is a survivor that what happened is not their fault, nor are they alone.
In addition to the races, the event included a demonstration by the 525th Military Working Dog Detachment on Clay Kaserne to both entertain some of the younger attendees and remind everyone that the military police are ready to respond to anyone who may be in need after a case like assault.
Lt. Col. Edwin Escobar, Provost Marshal and director of the Directorate of Emergency Services on Clay Kaserne, participated in the 10K race with his high school-aged son, Landon.
"This means a lot to me because this is where the community can come together for a really good cause," Escobar said. We are always trying to eliminate this threat and its impact on the readiness of our troops."
Escobar also has a daughter in college, who he said he worries about. He said he is hoping that attendance at events such as Take Back the Night will help solidify a tight knight community mindset to combat assault and set a good example for both adolescents and younger service members.
"If we teach those younger generations that this is just not tolerated, I think we are going to get rid of that culture of harassment and assault," Escobar said. "I'm a staunch believer that we can stop this. They're our future generations of leadership, and it's important to instill values at a young age."
Both Escobar and Gordon said it was important that the event included a large demographic of military and civilian attendees to represent the diverse population affected by sexual harassment and assault.
"No matter where you are and no matter what time of day, you have the right to feel safe," Gordon said. "No matter what gender or what age, you have the right to feel safe in your community."
If you are in the Wiesbaden area and need to report a case of sexual harassment and assault to a SARC or a victim advocate, call 0162-296-6741 for the 24/7 hotline number for both restricted and unrestricted reports.