By Kayla Williams
In a discussion about sexual assault in the military, an older gentleman at one point turned to me and said, “What do you think, Kayla, don’t these girls know that if they’re in these situations and get partially undressed, what might happen?”
I said, “I have to use the restroom” and walked out of the room to collect myself.
This was partly so I wouldn’t lose my temper at what to me was an appalling question.
It was also partly to manage the flood of guilt and shame that his question immediately triggered, dredging up memories of being raped while I was still in high school by a guy who I voluntarily started making out with, who kept going after I said, “No, no, no” until eventually I fell silent and limp, feeling as if I was watching what happened from outside my own body. His query brought back the plagues of self-doubt that swept me for years after, wondering if I brought it on myself, if I didn’t know what might happen when I invited him into my bedroom and therefore somehow deserved it.
Later the older gentleman apologized to me – not for the question, which he still thought was fine, but for making me the target of it.
“Do you know what the leading causes of death are in America?” I asked.
“Of murder?” he asked.
“No, of death. What are the leading causes of deaths for adults in America?”
“Heart attack? Strokes? Cancer?” he guessed.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “And car accidents. But when people jump in their cars to drive to McDonald’s, I don’t usually hear people saying, ‘Don’t those people know that what they’re doing might kill them?!’ Do you see what I’m saying?”
He seized on this triumphantly. “Exactly! This is my question! They know eating at McDonald’s is bad for them, but they do it anyway! So how can we change that?”
I needed another break.
Although I’m not convinced that the question of how we can best train potential victims to take fewer risks is the right tactic (and I certainly don’t believe it should be the sole component of any campaign to curb sexual assault), encouraging people to take reasonable precautions can be part of a broader campaign. But I didn’t want to engage on that issue – at this moment in time I wanted to get through to him on a particular point, so I tried again.
“If I correctly understood what you were trying to say earlier, allow me to suggest a way to say it that may a bit less victim-blame-y. Why don’t you try something like this: ‘If we look back over the last few decades, we see that some public health and safety campaigns have been fairly successful. For example, rates of drunk driving and smoking have dropped significantly, while rates of seatbelt and carseat use are up dramatically. However, others have been less successful – for example, efforts to encourage healthier eating haven’t made much headway, and Mayor Bloomberg’s recent effort to limit the size of soda available for sale triggered significant backlash. What lessons about reducing risky behaviors can we learn from successful and unsuccessful public health and safety campaigns?’ Does that make any sense?”
He may not have gotten it, but I felt better for keeping my composure and making what I thought were relevant points on how he could avoid terminology and phrasing that comes off as blaming victims.
Kayla Williams is a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). During her deployment to Iraq, Williams was at the forefront of troops’ interaction with Iraqis will also navigating the challenges of being part of the 15% of the Army that is female. Kayla is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military. She regularly speaks and writes about military and veterans’ issues for numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, CNN, BBC, Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Slate. Ms. Williams graduated cum laude with a BA in English Literature from Bowling Green State University, and earned an MA in International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East from American University. Kayla is a 2013 White House Woman Veteran Champion of Change, Truman National Security Project Fellow, and member of the Army Education Advisory Committee, and a former member of the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. She currently lives near Washington, D.C. with her husband, a combat-wounded veteran. Her book Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War, about his injury and their joint path from trauma to healing, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.