For most of my life, I thought people who commit sex offenses were monsters who jumped out from the shadows at people in dangerous neighborhoods.
For most of my life, I thought men couldn't be victims of sexual assault.
For most of my life, I thought boys would be boys, jokes were just jokes, and everyone needed to lighten up.
Thankfully, all of these misconceptions began to clear up for me more than a year ago. It all started by watching The Invisible War just days after I entered the anti-sexual-violence movement by accepting a position with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
I also am a man and a soldier in the U.S. Army. In this movement, this has made for an awkward fit at times.
I'm not embarrassed by my gender, job or military career, but -- much like when your friend or family member does something phenomenally stupid -- you can't help but feel bewildered.
Rates of sexual assault in the military are staggering. Our service men and women deserve better than this. A culture of hypermasculinity -- strength and stoicism -- breeds the sense of power and entitlement that drives sexual assault.
When an institution has a blind spot for an issue, it's hard to create real solutions. One ineffective military policy attempting to the address the issue is its risk-reduction training. The practice assumes that all soldiers must take steps to reduce their risk of falling into harm's way. This mentality places blame squarely on the victim for everything from being shot to being raped.
Commercials, training and command messages not only reinforce an old and dangerous frame of mind that only a victim is to blame, but also illustrate a sad reality: The military can't seem to free itself from its own thinking.
Maybe that's because this thinking doesn't start with the military.
Entering the field of anti-sexual violence brings forth a lot of introspection. For me, that has meant coming to terms with learning that my world views were largely manufactured by Hollywood and advertising. Men and women in the military watch the same shows, read the same magazines, play the same games and listen to the same music that civilians do. Everyone is exposed to the same messages, and those messages are rooted in hypermasculinity.
Hypermasculinity is not unique to the Army, or any branch of service. That's national. Hell, that's global. And, sadly, to a degree, it's necessary for a select group of men and women who ultimately have to pull a trigger so that others don't have to.
But instead of being treated as the conditionally necessary evil it is, the world celebrates this kind of "macho" behavior. That kind of behavior is rewarded, and the people who have been force-fed these messages their entire lives wind up in the military.
They go from celebrating that behavior to living it. But it isn't all honor, glory and fiery explosions. It's actually very little of that. In a hypermasculine culture, someone's power is limited by the square-inch symbol on their uniform; they either have no power at all or infinite power over those beneath them. When masculinity is defined by power and aggression, sexual violence is the result.
When something yields an undesirable result in the Army, there's training to correct it. However, the Army's approach to correction training is an hour of instruction that often happens in a vacuum. It's a block-checking exercise.
That's not to say that the Army hasn't made strides in improving training efforts; it has. However, the training is still presented the same way one would approach a topic like information security or driver's safety training, causing service men and women to treat it as "one more training I have to get through before I go home."
I don't want to live in a world where sexual violence is treated like an inconvenient hour of training.
Some days, I look back on my former blissfully uninformed self with envy. Back then, I was confident that my military service made my "man card" irrevocable, and I never spend time wondering about the implications of stupid memes.
But those days are gone. Sexual violence is real. It's staring us in the face, and military sexual assault is just the tip of the iceberg.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated byRAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.