Perils of being 'not-so-innocent' bystander

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jason W. Edwards
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
I was accused of sexual assault. Even after 21 years, it's still not easy to admit that.

It was 1993, and I was a young airman basic at Lowry Air Force Base, Colo. I was in technical school, learning how to be a U.S. Air Force photographer.

My class consisted of eight male Airmen and Marines, and one female Airman.

She told us right up front she didn't want to be treated any differently than anyone else. We were to consider her "one of the guys."

So we did.

It wasn't too long before the crude jokes and inappropriate comments started. What harm could possibly come of it? After all, she was just one of the guys.

If you recently attended the mandatory Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training, you may have heard the term, "continuum of harm."

The continuum of harm demonstrates how seemingly harmless comments and inappropriate jokes can lead to more severe behaviors such as sexual harassment, sexual assault and even rape.

As the months went on the comments became more inappropriate.

Eventually, this culminated in an alleged assault in the darkroom during class.

The whole class was accused of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I was cleared very early in the investigation, because I was out sick the day of the alleged assault.

However, I was not innocent.

I was guilty of not speaking up when I should have. I could have objected to the inappropriate behavior at any time.

I, and probably a few others, suffered from pluralistic ignorance. I assumed, incorrectly, that the comments were OK simply because no one else in the class objected.

Had any one of us spoken up, there probably would have been at least a few others who agreed. This could have led to a change in behavior and might have prevented the alleged incident in the darkroom.

I say "alleged," because to this day I still don't know the outcome of the investigation. Having not been in class that day, I really don't know what happened.

I do know the incident was reported, and it polarized the class. Those of us who stood accused of sexual harassment and assault were mad at our female classmate.

How dare she make such a claim? Clearly she just made it up.

Or did she?

In the years since, I have learned through SAPR training false claims of sexual assault are not nearly as common as people think.

Coming forward and reporting an assault is not an easy decision, and it comes with consequences.

All too often, society places the blame on the person who made the claim.

My class was certainly guilty of that. We openly blamed and ostracized her.

This carried well beyond the confines of our classroom. Other students at the school and in the dormitory got wind of the story and chose sides.

Well aware of the possible alienation to come, she went ahead and made the claim.

Knowing what I know now, I am convinced that she did not just make up a story for the sole purpose of seeing us suffer.

Something happened in that darkroom that made her come forward.

We were all guilty of something -- be it actual assault, saying the wrong thing or saying nothing at all. We were all guilty.

I wish I could say things have changed in the last 20 years, but they really haven't.

I still see people making crude jokes and inappropriate comments. I still hear stories of the "silent victim" who is afraid to speak up. I still see pluralistic ignorance getting in the way of doing the right thing.

Don't learn this lesson the hard way, as I did.

Don't be a "not-so-innocent" bystander.