Pentagon: Sexism remains a part of military academy culture

Reported sexual assaults down at academies, but harassment and violence continue

A midshipman in Bancroft Hall, the main dormitory on the U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Md., Jan. 9, 2014.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Many students at U.S. military academies say they believe they have to put up with sexist and offensive behavior to maintain their standing, a Pentagon report found. A culture of crude language, sexist comments and excessive drinking across the academies fuels sexual harassment and assault, the report concluded.

In the annual report, released Friday, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) looked at sexual assaults at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“Crude and offensive language and sexist comments occur frequently” at the academies and are an “ingrained part of the experience,” students said, according to the report.

Focus groups at the three academies over the last school year allowed students to share their perspectives on how unwanted gender-related behaviors might be diminished, and their views served as illustrations for the report.

The students said that among cadets and midshipmen, protecting one’s reputation is critical to success at the academy — which often results in an unwillingness to stand up to improper behavior.

SAPRO recommended that the schools beef up training, particularly among student leaders, so that students recognize and feel empowered to interject when they witness or hear of sexual assault or harassment.

Overall, reported sexual assaults at the academies were down, from 80 the school year that ended in May 2012 to 70 the next year. Of those, almost two-thirds were at the Air Force Academy.

The report noted that alcohol is often a factor in sexual assaults, and it urged military leaders to do more to restrict and monitor drinking and liquor sales.

The stress-filled life of academy students often leads to heavy drinking and poor judgment in relationships, according to the report. What students “perceived as overly restrictive academy rules often motivated some to engage in excess during their ‘personal time,’” it said.

Sports team scandals

The report cited sports team scandals at all three academies as examples of the prevalence of harassment.

At the Naval Academy, three members of the football team faced accusations in a complicated sexual-assault case involving a female student at an off-campus party.

At West Point, the men’s rugby team was temporarily disbanded and more than a dozen seniors were demoted and faced other punishment and restrictions after emails that were derogatory to women were uncovered.

And there was a similar problem with sports team members at the Air Force Academy circulating a document that disparaged individuals who date female cadets.

Both the Army and Navy targeted sports team captains and are using field trips to Gettysburg, Pa., to talk to them about leadership and the need to combat sexual harassment and assault within their ranks.

In December, Congress passed a comprehensive defense bill that it says will crack down on sexual assault in the military and add protections for victims. The Pentagon has estimated that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted in 2012 — a 37 percent increase over 2011.

The legislation would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.

The reform also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual-assault cases and criminalize retaliation against victims who report sexual assaults.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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