Navy legacy persists: a culture that places female mids at risk


BOYS WILL be boys, the old expression says. But they don't believe that at the U.S. Naval Academy. They can't. Not after the latest report from a Pentagon task force alleging problems with sexual harassment, which read like a replay of too many earlier problems in Annapolis. At the Naval Academy, too much of the time, boys will simply be boys with criminal tendencies.

The new report was put together by a Pentagon group called the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies. That means Navy, West Point and the Air Force Academy.

"Hostile attitudes," the report says. "Inappropriate actions toward women," it says. "Toleration of those by some cadets and midshipmen."

"Hostile attitudes"?

"Inappropriate actions"?


Excuse me?

According to the report, more than half the women at the three military academies said they'd been sexually harassed, and more than one in 10 said they'd been sexually assaulted. In a civilized world, we don't call sexual assault "inappropriate." We call it criminal behavior, punishable by imprisonment.

At the U.S. Naval Academy, by now, they should also call it a recurring problem - and a disturbing reflection of a culture that seems to wink at such behavior, or look for reasons to excuse it. And we all know the first excuse: Women shouldn't be there to begin with. Chicks aren't suited for the military life. They don't belong in combat, and they shouldn't be allowed in the same dormitories with young men at the height of their sexual combustibility.

Let's try explaining the last item at the thousands of co-ed colleges around the country where young men and women manage to exist without such alarming sexual assault numbers - including those countless colleges with co-ed dorms.

No, this isn't about boys and girls together. It's about a culture of lingering machismo.

Remember Dr. Carol Burke? The Naval Academy does. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, she taught English and directed the writing center at the academy. Then she left to become associate dean of arts and sciences at the Johns Hopkins University.

She did a cover story for The New Republic, called "The Navy's Sex Jokes." But nobody at Navy found it funny. Taking dark note of the infamous 1992 Tailhook convention scandal, in which naval officers allegedly assaulted 26 women (some of them fellow officers), Burke's article made the academy look like a breeding ground for such Neanderthal behavior.

"Women at the Naval Academy," Burke wrote, "learn to accept silently what many view as intimidation. Like their male counterparts, they quickly learn that complaining of mistreatment is viewed as a sign of weakness."

In one infamous incident, a female mid was handcuffed by classmates to a urinal in a men's room.

Compared with the latest study, Burke was mild. But the Navy brass called her report "inaccurate" and the activities described "never condoned by the administration" and insisted they would assess any "sexist attitudes" that might exist at the academy. Some assessment.

A few years later, 1996, a crescendo of troubles: a top midshipman leader charged with sexually assaulting four female mids; drug testing of the entire brigade, with 24 mids found to be using LSD; and several mids running a car theft ring. One was a key figure in a stolen engineering exam scam that led to the biggest cheating scandal in academy history and allegations that the school punished the smallest offenders heavily while going easy on football players.

Then, a few years later, another sex scandal. It wasn't just that the four males were caught in forbidden sexual relations - it's that three were expelled while the fourth, a star football player, was allowed to stay. His breakaway football abilities were the equal of his runaway glands.

The new Pentagon study reads like an echo of Burke's earlier reporting. It's not just the individual incidents - it's the culture.

"Historically," the new report says, "sexual harassment has been inadequately addressed." Such an atmosphere is a "corrosive problem, creating an environment in which sexual assault is more likely to occur."

That's not the real problem, the old-liners will declare. They'll say women shouldn't be there at all. They'll say it's not natural for young men and women to be thrown together when everybody's feeling so much natural body heat.

They've got a slight point.

But that's what we call an education.

At the academies, they teach aeronautical engineering and physics and calculus, and manage to get these difficult subjects into students' heads. They teach young men and women the mechanics of killing. Nobody calls killing "natural."

If they can teach those things, can't they explain simple human decency toward the opposite sex?

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