Patrick Semansky/AP
A sign stands outside of an entrance to the US Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Md., Thursday. A culture of bad behavior and disrespect among athletes at US military academies is one part of the continuing problem of sexual assaults at the schools, according to a new Defense Department report that comes in the wake of scandals that rocked teams at all three academies last year.

Sexual harassment in the military: what female cadets have to say

A congressionally mandated Pentagon report, released Friday, gauges sexual harassment and assault at America’s service academies and catalogs comments made by students during focus groups.

A new Pentagon report offers a fascinating window into how students at the service academies feel the military should best handle sexual harassment and assault on campus – and why they occur.

These insights are gleaned from verbatim comments shared in focus groups conducted by Pentagon officials. They’re in an appendix to the report, released Friday, that shows that incidents of sexual assault at two of America’s three service academies are down. But there are no data to indicate whether the downtick “is due to fewer assaults occurring or due to fewer victims opting to report,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).

The Pentagon watches the results of this congressionally mandated report closely, since “the academy is where we develop future leaders of the military,” Snow noted during a briefing with reporters Friday.

Another key finding in the report: Cadets at the academies often say that peer pressure is a “barrier to reporting,” Snow said. “That’s not good.”

The study also found that “the rates for crude and offensive behavior – this is your typical locker room talk – and for sexist behavior on the 2012 survey – those were high,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, deputy branch chief of the Defense Manpower Data Center, which conducted the focus groups with students at the academies.

Between 80 and 90 percent of women indicated that they had been the object of sexist comments in the past 12 months. Defense officials sought to bore into those figures to see if they were really accurate.

“When we did go into the focus groups, we asked a bit more about whether those rates seemed about right,” Ms. Van Winkle explained. “And the feedback we got was that yes, they seemed about right.”

What’s more, “In fact, many said, ‘We’re surprised it’s not higher,’ ” she said. “So this is where we started to see that culture that we’ve been discussing.”

These sorts of sexist comments are particularly troubling to Pentagon officials because, “There is a strong positive correlation between the experience of sexual harassment and the eventual sexual assault of people in military units,” said Nathan Galbreath, the Pentagon’s senior executive adviser to SAPRO.

“And so we think that because these two problems are on the same continuum of harm, getting at that sexual harassment – the crude and sexist behavior – is part of the prevention work [for] sexual assault.”

The focus-group comments of the cadets offer some insights into why the cadets themselves think the problem is pervasive, and how to best handle it.

When sexual harassment and assaults are prosecuted on campus, they think it might be a good idea to publicize them a bit more, even while protecting the anonymity of victims.

“When these things happen, my concern is, Are they being at all like hushed up?” one West Point cadet told Pentagon interviewers. “I think if we wanted to raise awareness and like say that this is a problem, why isn’t it being publicized when it does happen, even anonymously?”

Pentagon researchers also wanted to know from cadets whether they thought unwanted sexual contact was a problem perpetrated by many fellow cadets, or by a few problem cadets. Military officials have gotten heat from lawmakers, for example, for being resistant to the idea of predators in the ranks.

Female cadets at West Point noted that in some cases, there are one or two well-known seniors in a company “that has made passes at most of the plebe girls. And they all have this uncomfortable feeling around him.” That said, one female cadet added, “I don’t think there are a lot of males here like that.”

Female cadets also reported struggling with how to best handle put-downs and sexually harassing comments, while still being “cool.”

“If someone touches you,” one female cadet explained, there is an unspoken understanding that “you don’t want to be like that girl and freak out about it.” The question is how to let a fellow cadet know, “Hey, that’s not cool, don’t do it,” she told Pentagon interviewers.

“You almost have to make that character judgment and decide in your mind if you think it’s worth it.”

Because female cadets are far outnumbered by their male counterparts, one female cadet reported struggling with feelings of “maybe I am overreacting.” She continued, “So I don’t know what to do when everybody else seems to be okay with it.” 

While many women said they feel comfortable speaking up when they feel harassed, they also recognized that many female cadets also blame themselves when they experience unwanted sexual touching. “It starts to seem like the victim’s fault for not being assertive,” one said.

A clear theme that comes through in the survey, too, is that cadets of both genders feel that because the physical standards for female cadets are not as strenuous as those for male cadets, the men may have less respect for the women.

“The only thing I can think of is because some standards for women are lower,” one male cadet told investigators. “My summer training, what I did last summer, girls aren’t allowed to go to it because it’s a male-only role.”

“I think I saw it during ‘Beast’ a lot,” said one female cadet, referring to the grueling summer training for freshmen. “If the female is slowing down the squad because they’re having a harder time carrying the ruck, it sparks that negative mindset, like ‘Why are the women in the military? Our entire unit is slowed down.’ I can see frustration with that.”

Another female cadet noted that because the physical standards are different for men and women at the academies, it is possible for women to get higher scores than men – even though they might not have to do as many push-ups or run a mile as quickly. “That eats him alive,” said one female cadet of a male cadet friend of hers.

Until the Pentagon allows women to compete with men for the same combat jobs in the military, that culture of disrespect will continue, says Greg Jacob, a former US Marine and policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, in an interview. “Until women become full-fledged members of a team, and the more women get promoted up the chain of command – that’s really the culture change that we’re looking to see happen,” he says.

Confronting the problem within the Pentagon, and at the service academies, remains “a daunting task,” said Snow, who recently took over as director at SAPRO. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep in my first week on the job.”

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