Young Voices: Educating to End Sexual Violence

Shaquil Keels / March 13, 2017

Advocacy through peer-to-peer education at the U.S. Naval Academy

I was raised by two of the most wonderful women in the world, my mother and grandmother. They taught me from a young age to always do what I believe is right and told me that as a man, I must always love, respect, and protect women. Thanks to their influence, as I grew up, I treated everyone with compassion. It was second nature to me that all people should be treated with dignity and respect at all times, no matter their race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there was an epidemic taking place in our society. Sexual violence is something we all know but have difficulty talking about, particularly males. Our societal desire to sweep it under the rug is the very reason it is imperative that we do talk about it.

So I’ll start the conversation: I am a 23-year-old man, a First Class Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, and I am dedicating my life to putting an end to sexual violence. And I want to talk about it.

My junior year of high school, a close friend revealed to me that she was sexually assaulted. I had no idea how to respond. I was shocked that someone so close to me, someone I knew so well, could be a victim of sexual assault. I knew this was a terrible crime from watching movies and reading articles in the news, but that is all I knew. I tried to help her but I fell short. I just did not have the proper tools to help a survivor of sexual assault.

Those feeling of helplessness then made me realize now how important it is to have conversations on this topic early and often. These conversations are the only way to change our culture.

My first summer at the U.S. Naval Academy was full of long days, short nights, and lots of yelling from upper classmen. Often, during those long days all I could think about was sleep, and remembering facts was a challenge.

But there was one fact I could not forget: During an educational brief, I learned that in 2012, 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact. I realized that if the greatest military known to man struggles to address sexual assault, it must be everywhere. It was then that I began to understand the pervasiveness of the issue that impacted my friend.

During that same brief, we were introduced to the Naval Academy’s Sexual Harassment and Assault and Prevention Education Program, better known as SHAPE. All Midshipmen must complete multiple SHAPE sessions throughout their four years at the Naval Academy. The program is run by Midshipmen facilitators who guide discussions on sexual harassment and assault. This provides knowledge of the issue, and allows for emotional growth in learning how to talk about it. It also illustrates how everyone in a community plays a critical role in preventing sexual assault.

Another curriculum component of the Plebe Year (Freshman Year, in civilian university terms) consists of a presentation called the 1-in-4 Program (1-in-4 being the fraction of women in college have survived rape or attempted rape.) This is presented to the incoming class on how male sexual assault parallels female sexual assault in terms of statistics, trauma, and general experience. We tend to hear more about women who have experienced sexual assault and harassment, but it is just as important to recognize that this issue is not restricted to a single gender. Men are at high risk because they are less likely to tell anyone they’ve been assaulted, even their loved ones, meaning many male survivors are suffering in silence.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study in 2016 that found that one in five female undergraduates are sexually assaulted while in college. That same study also found that one in 16 men are also assaulted while in college. I want to know: How can this happen? Shouldn’t college be somewhere we all should go and feel comfortable in the environment we are in?

The more I learned and engaged in this issue, the more involved I became. During my freshman year, I decided to be a Peer Educator on the SHAPE Team. With the proper resources and tools, I finally felt equipped to help people who might look to me for assistance. I became a close ally for survivors who did not know where to go or whom they could turn to. And I became a voice for many people who have yet to tell their story. My role as a Peer Educator allowed me to become a stronger advocate in fighting to end sexual assault -- the kind of advocate and friend I wish I could have been back in high school.

Two years ago, I became the “It’s On Us” Student Advisor for the Naval Academy. Launched in 2014, “It’s On Us” is a cultural movement aimed at fundamentally shifting the way we think and talk about sexual assault. It is a call for everyone to take a stand and realize that ending sexual assault begins with us. I served on a committee with many dedicated student leaders from schools across the country who all had different backgrounds and experiences. Although we came from different walks of life, we all had one common goal: to eradicate sexual assault.

Being the only military Service Academy member on the Student Advisory Committee was not without its challenges — military institutions must follow certain guidelines that civilian schools are not bound by.

In response, I pitched the idea of having a regional team specifically for the Federal Service Academies, and was asked to be the Regional Advisor for that team. I felt honored because doing so was a great opportunity to branch out to our sister academies, and implement the “It’s On Us Campaign” on their campuses as well.

I now have the privilege of overseeing incredible students doing important work at all the Service Academies. As future leaders in the military, it is critical that we understand sexual violence. The barriers that have prevented victims from coming forward — harmful myths and too much blame placed on survivors for the actions of their perpetrators — have stood for too long.

By becoming educated advocates, we can make sure all survivors receive the message that they are believed and supported.

Bringing the “It’s On Us” Campaign to the Naval Academy has been a success, and I am immensely proud, humbled, and thankful to have been part of the experience. Former Vice President Joe Biden visited the Naval Academy in the fall of 2015 to hold a roundtable discussion about the work being done on our campus and the impact of the campaign. Last year, about half of our students took the “It’s On Us” pledge to recognize and intervene in situations where a sexual assault may occur. By doing this, they are creating a sexual assault-free and survivor-supported environment. I am more confident than ever that the Naval Academy family is making a difference in ending this problem by empowering each other through education and conversation.

Shaquil Keels, a native of Philadelphia, PA, is a First Class Midshipman (Senior) and a member of the 7th Company at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a member of the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education Program, better known as SHAPE. He was selected to commission as in Ensign in the Surface Warfare Community this May.

Throughout the year, along with numerous of other midshipmen, Shaquil helps inform the Brigade of Midshipmen on the cultural issue of sexual assault and how becoming and being an active bystander can help change the society we live in. As the “It’s On Us” Military Regional Advisor, he works to implement “It’s On Us” at each Federal Service Academy.