Sexual assault prevention and outreach is a major focus in the Defense Department, and a new anonymous chat tool called Safe Helproom is specifically helping military men who have experienced unwanted sexual contact.
The perception of sexual assault in pop culture can lead many to believe that it is a crime that only affects women. The reality, though, is that men are assaulted, too. This misperception makes it a trauma that’s extremely hard for men to open up about. Men who have experienced sexual assault don’t often share their experiences with others, and may be reluctant to access support to help themselves.
“The negative impact of sexual assault on individuals undermines military readiness. There are military men who have experienced sexual assault prior to coming into the military, and never dealt with it. They figured they could handle it themselves, but over time, it is not uncommon for additional layers of stress or trauma to finally overwhelm them,” said Bette Inch, the senior victim assistance adviser for the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
The DoD estimates that about 6,300 military men experienced some kind of sexual assault in 2016. Statistics show that far fewer men are likely to report those assaults than women. Instead, they may try to forget the crimes or repress and avoid seeking help for long periods of time. That can be for many reasons: they’re concerned about being judged or not believed, afraid of being seen as weak, and can often carry feelings of shame and embarrassment. Many military men who experience sexual assault are also wary of retaliation or repercussions from their chains of command, and even peers, if they do report incidents.
Safe Helpline is a crisis support service for all sexual assault survivors in the DoD community, providing support and information in a confidential, anonymous and secure atmosphere. Safe Helpline’s many resources include a group-chat capability – the Safe HelpRoom – with secure instant-messaging where members of the DoD community can go anonymously and find support anytime, anywhere.
In the Safe HelpRoom, service members can speak anonymously to their peers. Starting this month, Safe HelpRoom sessions specifically for men will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday.
“Most men find it reassuring to talk to someone who is going through a similar experience,” said SAPRO Deputy Director Dr. Nathan Galbreath. “Sometimes, the No. 1 thing that gives people hope is to connect with someone who has put their life back together after a sexual assault. We think this is a place for men to do exactly that.”
Specially trained Safe Helpline personnel moderate chats to make sure all of those who join stay anonymous and that the sessions are safe and supportive for everyone involved. Moderators can also provide referrals and help keep the conversation focused on individual needs.
The goal of the men’s chat sessions in the Safe HelpRoom is to empower individuals to get more information, reach out to readily available resources and get the assistance they need to move forward.
“We know that men often prefer to receive information and resources anonymously while they consider their next step,” said Inch, who is also the director of Safe Helpline. “During Men’s Safe HelpRoom sessions, men can learn about what worked or didn’t work for other men in the aftermath of experiencing a sexual assault, regardless of when the assault occurred.”
Safe Helpline offers other resources for male victims, including frequently asked questions on their website. Survivors can also call 877-995-5247 for immediate support, or text 55-247 (inside the U.S.) or 001-202-470-5546 (outside the U.S.) to get location-based help on how to find the nearest sexual assault response coordinator, medical care or legal personnel.
There’s also a free self-care app available on iOS and Android that lets survivors create personalized self-care plans along with specially designed exercises to aid in their recovery. Just search “DoD Safe Helpline” in the app store.
Note: The sessions are for survivors ONLY. It’s a space for them to connect with others who know what they’ve been through. Service providers and others should not partake. Also, note that the Safe HelpRoom is NOT a substitute for counseling or other mental health services, and Safe Helpline staff can assist with referrals as needed.
By Katie Lange