Like every member of the Army, I am ashamed that yet another serious allegation of sexual assault has cast a shadow over our hard earned and widely-envied reputation. While investigations and criminal trials ultimately determine the truth behind such incidents, reputational damage is done at the point of allegation. This is a sad fact of today’s society and the nature of ‘trial by social media’. The Army is working hard to move towards being an organisation which is free of such behaviour but has yet to address some of the root causes which lead to sexual offences being committed or alleged in the first place.
Whether the behaviour of members of the Army results in more or less allegations and convictions than a similar civilian demographic is a moot point. As CGS said in his recent public address any such incident is incompatible with the standards we set ourselves. While sexual assault has never been acceptable, public perceptions and attitudes to such behaviour continue to harden. Therefore even if the overall numbers of allegations were to reduce, this does not necessarily equate to success. Moreover, the damage done to the victims of such incidents and crimes is often irreparable. The Army has worked hard to bear down on such behaviour through a number of internal campaigns and by better understanding the problem with its rightly-uncomfortable-to-read Sexual Harassment Survey. Despite this, soldiers continue to behave despicably at times.
As a sub-unit commander, I was responsible for a number of soldiers accused of serious sexual offences as well as several of victims of domestic abuse (of which one incident involved murder). I only mention this to demonstrate I have seen both sides of these terrible cases. In dealing with them, I drew a number of conclusions about the Army’s approach to tackling such behaviour. Internally we are making progress. Incidents of general or direct sexual harassment are gradually reducing as attempts to change the Army’s culture take hold (although there is much work left to do). Externally, however, I fear attitudes are changing less quickly, if at all. Figures relating to the number of allegations and convictions against soldiers outside of the Service Justice System are not publicly available. However, even if this data compared favourably to the number of incidents that fall under the jurisdiction of Service Police, these numbers would still be nothing to be proud of. The Army’s campaigns to tackle such behaviour push a hard line of zero-tolerance, which like our anti-drugs policy, serves to limit rather than eliminate bad behaviour. Equally, the focus of the Army’s intervention seems to be more aimed at reducing incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace and reinforces the implicit distinction of between what might be acceptable in barracks as opposed to at home or ‘down town’.
The Army must keep doing what it is doing in terms of prevention, but it might be time to take a more holistic view. For me, the Army’s root problem is an acute version of one which is faced by wider society. This revolves around a lack of education about how we form and maintain healthy relationships based on respect. A lot of people simply have to figure out themselves how to turn a ‘Right Swipe’ into ‘the One’ and many, too many, get this very wrong. This is not something we can afford to leave to chance if we are serious about minimising or eliminating incidents of sexual assault or harassment. That said, this is not something I would advocate turning into a MATT. An inventive approach which focuses on relatable role-models is likely to be far more effective. Equally the Army should make the best use of the resources and advice available from charities like Relate. While such an approach might cross the line in terms of what an employer demands of its workers, at its heart this type of measure serves to protect its own people, potential victims and hopefully preserving the Army’s reputation.
Addressing the root cause of such problems also helps break down the stove-pipes the various types of sexual offending and abuse fall under. With separate ‘strategies’ and ‘action plans’ in place for tackling sexual harassment, wider sexual offending and domestic abuse, symptoms rather than causes are more easily addressed. A common and concerted approach to addressing underlying issues like poor relationship skills may have a significant and more widespread impact. Sexual offences and harassment are incompatible with Service life. This is well understood and is a clearly communicated from the Army’s senior leadership to the ‘tank park’, but with a zero-tolerance approach, we must seek novel approaches to addressing the root causes of such incidents. Better education, based on sound and practical relationship education may offer one complimentary strategy to both prevent the perpetuation of sexual offences and preserve the Army’s reputation.