The United States Navy's "stand-down" on sexual harassment was a terrific idea, though overdue -- at least 16 years overdue, as women were first admitted to the Naval Academy in 1976.
At Annapolis, some 4,300 midshipmen took part in last weekend's stand-down, a rare occasion when all naval branches suspend activity for a day-long study of a topic. The event came nearly a year after the Tailhook incident, in which current and former Navy pilots at their annual convention harassed and molested more than 35 women, including Navy officers. The fallout from Tailhook forced H. Lawrence Garrett III to resign as secretary of the Navy last June.
Sexual harassment involving Navy personnel is hardly confined to Las Vegas hotels. At the Naval Academy three years ago, a scandal broke when it was learned that a 19-year-old female middie had been handcuffed to a urinal while her male classmates taunted and photographed her.
And recently in The New Republic magazine, a woman civilian who taught at the academy from 1984 to 1991 listed some misogynistic crudities of male middies. Among the printable examples are marching chants with titles like "My Girl Is a Vegetable," and the practice of registering unattractive female visitors to the campus in a "Hog Log."
Such acts are less surprising, but no less disturbing, when put in a context typified by former Navy Secretary James Webb's description of female middies as "thunder thighs."
Rear Admiral Thomas C. Lynch, academy superintendent since last year, says these acts and the attitudes that cause them must go. "The policy of the Navy and the Naval Academy is very simple: zero tolerance of sexual harassment," Admiral Lynch said during the stand-down.
In recent years, the academy has officially banned the Hog Log and similar practices, though they reportedly continue. Granted, the machismo culture of Annapolis and other military academies isn't likely to vanish overnight. There are even people who defend the machismo as a vital aspect of military training.
They should be reminded that the Naval Academy requires all candidates for admission to be "of good moral character." Those words will ring hollow until sexual harassment is no longer a source of amusement and pride for male middies and their superiors. It was a long time coming, but last weekend's stand-down was an important step toward eliminating this problem.