By Charles Clymer
Charles is a yearling (sophomore), and served 3.5 years in the infantry before coming to West Point.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a speech given by Anu Bhagwati, the Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network, an organization that “advocates for all military women, in order to increase their visibility and access to equal protection, opportunities, and benefits.”
Hosted by the Margaret Corbin Forum, Ms. Bhagwati was insightful, engaging, and brutally honest in her remarks on the plights faced by women in the Armed Forces. She drew upon her experience as an officer in the Marine Corps and the sexism and prejudice she and other women have faced in their service to our country.
But what troubled me most in her commentary were the statistics on sexual harassment and assault at the Service Academies, and, in particular, West Point.
The Pentagon issued a report in December outlining sexual assault cases reported at each academy and what’s being done to prevent future instances of assault and harassment.
At West Point, just last year, there were ten reports of sexual assault–five restricted and five unrestricted. It had originally been six restricted, but one victim chose to switch to unrestricted reporting.
Now, ten reports is bad enough, but according to the survey of the Academy conducted last year, a survey taken directly from the Corps and cadets/midshipmen from other Academies, more than 90% of assaults (and harassment) go unreported.
That leaves us with these sobering conclusions:
1. There were, at least, 100 cases of sexual assault at the Academy in AY 09-10.
2. And assuming there were few or no repeat offenses and that, per instance, there was one perpetrator and one victim (two very big assumptions), we can say that 200 cadets were involved in such instances last year.
200 cadets… that’s just a conservative figure. It’s nearly the size of two cadet companies. It means that, on average, there were six cadets in your company, last year, who were victims or perpetrators of sexual assault.
And that’s only assault. On the survey, 51% of women and 9% of men in the Corps said they’ve experienced sexual harassment, defined on the survey as:
“crude/offensive behavior (e.g., repeatedly told sexual stories or jokes that are offensive); unwanted sexual attention (e.g., unwanted attempts to establish a romantic sexual relationship despite efforts to discourage it); and sexual coercion (e.g., treated badly for refusing to have sex).”
These numbers are coming directly from us as cadets, and so, we’re left with this question:
How is it that one of the best schools in the country–but more than that, one that prides itself on professionalism and selfless service–is not nearly as safe and professional as it should be?
Is it the administration?
No. It seems this issue is a high priority among the Supe, the Comm, and the BTO. They never miss an opportunity to sincerely and emphatically address sexual assault and harassment at every briefing they give. This semester, the Comm has personally sent two Corps-wide e-mails stressing the importance of maintaining awareness of the professional standards we are called to meet, that sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated at the Academy. They ensure resources for victims of sexual assault are easily accessible and widely-known, putting the information prominently on the front page of USCC.
Is it the Respect Staff?
No. They train respect reps. to give briefing after briefing on sexual assault and harassment, defining what constitutes inappropriate behavior and relaying the Academy’s “zero tolerance” toward it. They thoroughly educate us on how to report assault and harassment and point us toward the many resources available for victims.
Really, the Academy goes above and beyond in preventing this, so who’s at fault?
How many times, just today, have we heard or told an inappropriate/sexist/homophobic joke?
Or used ridiculous and degrading terms like “trou” or “t-bucket” or “grey goggles” or “faggot” or said something we don’t like is “gay”?
How often do we joke about women and/or homosexuals at the Academy or just stand there and listen to others do it without saying a word?
How often do we condone a cadet making inappropriate advances on another cadet or hear about it and never follow it up?
In spite of all the briefings and the solid command climate, as cadets, we’ve managed to create an environment in which women are not sisters-in-arms and colleagues to be respected but objects of sexual ridicule and debasement.
And in turn, it makes it easier for some men among us to commit acts of sexual assault and harassment against not only women we count as our peers but those who are subordinates under our charge.
Remember: just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Look at the survey response for all the proof you need.
And I’ll be the first to accept blame on this. I’ve let jokes and comments slip by without saying anything, and I was wrong to do so.
We have to change. One instance of sexual assault or harassment is one too many, but when a significant percentage of the Corps is directly affected, it does more than damage those we care about it, it negatively shapes the future of the Army and our ability to serve this country.
It is time to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy among cadets. When we see or hear something that is sexist or homophobic or inappropriate on any level, we need to step in and put a stop to it. We need to look out for our own by setting a good example for classes to follow in our footsteps.
We need to start acting like the leaders we are expected to become.