May 12, 2011 — -- The Peace Corps says it will immediately replace a training video currently in use and obtained by ABC News in which rape victims appear on camera describing what they had done wrong to bring on sexual assault.
"Independently of what the producers of this video intended, I am afraid its take-away message is that if you are raped, then surely it is because you made poor choices," said Harvard psychology professor Mary Harvey in a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which held a hearing Wednesday on violence against Peace Corps volunteers. "This video, rather than preventing rape, has the potential to harm rape victims."
The tape, called "Serving Safely," was shot starting in 2002, according to a Peace Corps spokesperson, and has been in use since 2004. According to an affidavit submitted to Congress by a current Peace Corps volunteer, the tape was shown to incoming volunteers within the past month.
WATCH the training video. Some names and faces have been blurred.
The ten-minute tape opens with a narrator saying that while Peace Corps service can be "uniquely rewarding and fulfilling … there are safety issues associated with your service as well. "
A Peace Corps official then appears on camera to say, "Being a Peace Corps volunteer is not without risk. Unfortunately, sexual assaults do occur among our volunteers and we do need to take the necessary precautions to reduce that risk."
The narrator follows with a series of statistics about sexual assault. According to the tape, about 4,000 of the 7,000 new volunteers each year are women, and between 1993 and the making of the tape, an average of 35 volunteers "experienced a major sexual assault" each year.
The tape then notes that a significant number of attacks, 43 percent are committed by a friend or acquaintance, and that 50 percent of attacks "involved alcohol," though it does not specify who is using the alcohol. It also says that 85 percent of those assaulted were alone at the time of the attack.
Rape Victims Tell Stories on Video
After the three-minute introduction, the tape segues into interviews with "three returned Peace Corps volunteers [who] have agreed to tell their stories of sexual assault to help you protect yourself."
Separately, the women explain their idealistic motives for joining the Peace Corps, and mention that they were warned by the organization how to keep safe.
"Peace Corps does an excellent job of reiterating to you over and over," says one woman, "that safety is a huge issue and you are unusual, you are a target. But I never imagined I would be attacked."
Each of the women then lays out a similar scenario that involves excessive drinking and ending up in an isolated, unsafe situation with an attacker. One woman reports being raped by a colleague, another by an acquaintance, the third by the father of an acquaintance.
"I was inebriated," concludes one of the women. "When you're drunk you do a lot more stupid things. ... And looking back there are certainly other ways that I could have, other choices that I could have made instead of going to a bar and endangering myself."
Former Peace Corps volunteer Karestan Koenen, who testified at Wednesday's Congressional hearing on violence against Peace Corps volunteers, said "that video does nothing but continue the culture of blaming the victim of sexual assault." Karestan, who was raped in Niger in 1991, is now a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, and teaches at Harvard and Columbia. Jess Smochek, who testified about being gang-raped in Bangladesh in 2002, called the tape "horrific." Smochek was among the women who spoke to ABC News for an investigation of violence against Peace Corps women that aired earlier this year and sparked Wednesday's hearing.
At the hearing, Peace Corps director Aaron Williams promised that the Peace Corps would stop showing "Serving Safely" to incoming volunteers immediately. Said Williams, "I am going to replace the video immediately, because I've listened very carefully to the victims and their view of the video. " Koenan, Smochek, and several other returned Peace Corps volunteers met with Williams on Tuesday and gave him their opinions of the video.
Williams also promised lawmakers that the agency would make big changes in its handling of assault cases. "Rest assured, this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps of today," said Williams.