January 29, 2013 / Law & Justice, News, Safety

If You Can’t Stop Reporting of Sexual Violence, Change the Rules So There’s Nothing to Report


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Recently an article in The Atlantic took on the tough issue of the number of rapes and sexual assaults being reported at Military Service Academies (MSAs).  The author, an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, reported that “the Navy’s two top men, the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations” lectured the entire student body about the 23% spike in reported cases of sexuaal violence, and that, “There should be no reports of sexual violence at all, the midshipmen were told.”

I agree – almost. There is a big difference between being sexually assaulted and reporting a sexual assault. What I hope was meant was, “There should be no acts of sexual violence at all.” Otherwise, what “top brass” just told victims was to keep their mouths shut.

The author expresses grave concern about a new rule immediately put into place. In a nutshell, there will be patrols assigned to walk the halls of the dorm where all students are required to live. This, according to him, will be detrimental to the educations and careers of those assigned to guard duty. They will be tired. Their concentration will be affected, and they will then be reprimanded for their inability to stay awake in class. Sad, yes, but sadder are the statistics on women who experience sexual violence on campus who are unable to perform academically at their previous levels, miss classes to avoid the perpetrator, and often withdraw altogether.

The author states, “I don’t know that there has ever been a case of someone being assaulted in the hallways, which are fully lit and full of students.” If the author doesn’t believe sexual assaults happen in front of others, I would argue that a girl was repeatedly assaulted sexually at a party in Steubenville, OH. She was dragged, unconscious, from room to room while dozens of partygoers watched, taking pictures and video that was later uploaded to the Internet. One partygoer recorded a video making jokes about a girl “totally getting raped.” In the background one male walks in and tells him it isn’t funny, yet no one did anything to stop the horrendous act of violence against the victim.

The author ‘s suggestion of legalizing sex on MSA campuses as a way to combat reports of sexual assaults on campus confuses several issues.

In fairness, the author has a valid point that sex among academy students is strictly forbidden, and that not only includes consensual sex, it extends to hand-holding. Students are not allowed to marry. His assertion that students will do what they can to find a way to have sex is probably true.  But linking sexual assault to policies of abstinence is at the very least tragic. At the very worst, it is dangerous.

I’m not sure that “unwanted sexual contact” in whatever gender combination can ever be completely stamped out in a college populated by libidinal 18- to 21-year-olds where men and women live cheek by jowl in alternating rooms, and where up to four men or four women share a single room. However, I can tell the brass how to radically decrease it and reduce the tension among students to a manageable level: legalize sex at the service academies.

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How many times do experts and advocates have to say this before people get it? Sex crimes are not about sex, they are about power. Unwanted sexual contact means that one of the 18- to 21-year-olds in a given situation doesn’t actually want it. A statement like that places blame where it does not belong: on the victim. Putting it in quotation marks only adds insult to injury. He may as well have written “so-called unwanted sexual contact,” further revealing his disbelief that it happens. Just to clarify, the Department of Defense, in the report linked to in the article, outlines what is arguably the most comprehensive definition of unwanted sexual contact:

For purposes of the SAGR Survey, the term “unwanted sexual contact” means intentional sexual contact that was against a person’s will or which occurred when the person did not or could not consent, and includes completed or attempted sexual intercourse, sodomy (oral or anal sex), penetration by an object, and the unwanted touching of genitalia and other sexually-related areas of the body.

Their definition of sexual assault is equally comprehensive, if not more so, placing blame squarely on the aggressor.

The author’s solution is bad enough by itself. Here’s how he further clarified his position:

So let’s start by legalizing sex at the academies. This doesn’t mean permitting all sex everywhere. The military strictures against “fraternization,” “frat,” are only a codified version of rules we try to observe in the civilian world: no bosses with subordinates, “I’m not interested” means “back off,” hands off the interns, and so on. No people in authority positions taking advantage of that power, and sex in the workplace is never a good idea.

Right. Because this has been so effective in the civilian world, where the EEOC reported  that over 11,000 charges of sexual harassment were brought in 2011, yielding more than $52 million in benefits.

I agree that clogging up the disciplinary system with hand-holding slows the process for reports of a serious nature. The author of the article in The Atlantic is, in a sense, correct: calling an emergency, mandatory meeting with students to inform them of a new hallway patrol is not the way to prevent campus rapes at military academies. But neither is complaining about students’ inability to marry or losing them “by forbidding normalcy and punishing its expression.”

What, exactly, does he consider “normalcy,” especially considering that roughly half of college students don’t recognize the difference between “normal” behavior and sexual violence?  In our society sexual assault and sexually violent behavior are so normalized and we are so desensitized to it that “48.8% of the women did not consider what happened to them to be rape even though researchers considered the incidents to be rape,” and  “43% of college-aged men conceded to using coercive behavior to have sex (including ignoring a woman’s protest, using physical aggression, and forcing intercourse) but did not admit that it was rape (emphasis mine).” (AAUW Statistics)

The harsh truth is that the Department of Defense’s “Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies” specifically outlines what needs to happen to prevent sexual assault on academy campuses, including how to make it easier for victims to report an assault. The report states (emphasis mine)

In prior year assessments, the Department recommended that the academies take steps to bring more victims forward to report. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. Thus, a strategic priority for the Department is to increase the number of sexual assault reports made to authorities by victims in order to provide them with needed support and services and to hold those who commit sexual assault appropriately accountable.

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 1.11.30 PMIn other words, it is the expectation that there will be an increase in the number of reports made as victims feel safer to come forward, and this is exactly what is happening. Since the DoD’s recommendations in their ’08-’09 Academic Program Years report, the number of reports of sexual assaults at Military Service Academies (MSAs) has increased each year as the academies work to put all of the recommendations and action items into place. Still, during APY ’11-’12, not one MSA had completed them all, including the USNA, which had completed 17 recommendations and had 5 to go as of August 1, 2012. The decrease of harassment at the USNA was only among men, not women.

Regardless, there has been an increase in reports because the MSAs are doing their jobs, making it more palatable for victims to come forward. That is absolutely what should happen, and it is to be commended. Suggesting that documenting incidents of hand-holding or that sexually frustrated males are to blame for an increase in reports is ludicrous.

We all know that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, but how will we ever eradicate the scourge of sexual violence if no one is willing to admit it happens within their organization? Or their town? Or family? Or anywhere?