Why aren’t you talking with your Shipmates about sexual assault? Why is it so hard to admit we have a problem?

WARNING: This blog post contains explicit language, which may include profanity, references to violence, sexual assault, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and graphic depictions of violent or sexual behavior, which readers may find offensive or disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program logo. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

Written by Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Public Affairs Officer, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.

We all have heard the adage, “You can’t fix a problem until you admit you have one.” Those are true words and they are directly applicable to our mission of eliminating sexual assault within the Coast Guard. However, no one will admit to a problem until he or she personally believes there is – in fact – a problem. The problem is that sexual assaults are committed in the Coast Guard.

In the inaugural post for our series “Why aren’t you talking with your Shipmates about sexual assault?” we detailed some of the barriers to effective communication that may be hindering our ability to develop a shared perception – a shared reality – regarding the crime of sexual assault in the Coast Guard. We continue that discussion by examining another barrier that not only hinders communication, but also hinders our ability to create change.

As detailed or poignant as our blog posts may be; as focused and continuous as media coverage may be; and no matter how many emails and ALCOASTs are dispatched, unless you, our reader, accept as a fact that the crime of sexual assault happens in our Service as truth, then you’re not ready to admit we have a problem. If you are not ready to admit we have a problem, then you are not ready to be a catalyst for change, or to become part of the solution.
The question then becomes, “Why is it so hard for us to admit we have a problem?”

“I live the Coast Guard Core Values.” It is an affirmation found in the eighth line of the Coast Guardsman Ethos, it is a commitment made by every member of the service to embody Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty.

If you, as a Coast Guardsman, believe that our servicemembers are all committed to a way of life founded upon these guiding principles – our Core Values – then information illustrating that sexual assault happens in our Service is very hard to accept.

The deeper your belief (that all servicemembers are committed to a way of life founded upon our Core Values), the harder it is to accept information you view as contrary (that sexual assault occurs in the Coast Guard) and the more discomfort you will experience.

The easy thing to do when confronted by contrary information is to tune it out, to dismiss it as so much noise or rhetoric and to focus on information that reinforces your belief that these crimes don’t happen in our Coast Guard. That easy way out prevents us from acknowledging we have a problem, and ultimately slows our progress toward the elimination of sexual assault in the Service.

Similarly, if we believe that only men are the perpetrators of sexual assault, and only women are the victims, we will tend to dismiss or fail to hear information that tells us that men sexually assault other men, that women sexually assault other women, or that women sexually assault men.

Male-on-male sexual assault is not a new phenomenon in the military or in the Coast Guard specifically. What is new is that the behavior is now being reported more frequently, according to Shawn Wren, Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Manager. Now that hazing is the exception rather than a norm within the Service, conduct that once was reported as hazing is now being more correctly reported as sexual harassment or sexual assault, when there is a sexual element to the behavior. “We need to remember that sexual assault is a crime that is about power and control, not sex. Sex is the weapon used to gain that power and control,” said Wren.

A recent Baltimore Sun article, available online at military.com, stated, “The outrage over sexual assault in the military has focused largely on female service members, and with reason: A woman in uniform is much likelier to be targeted than a man, Pentagon surveys indicated. However, because male service members greatly outnumber females, officials believe the majority of sexual assault victims – 53 percent in 2012 – are men. These men – an estimated 13,900 last year alone – are far less likely than the estimated 12,000 women to report an attack. Only 13 percent of reports last year were filed by men, military data show.”

This post, the second in a series, features a review of three cases of sexual misconduct, two of which provide details about male-on-male sexual assault. The men charged in these two cases were charged with a sex crime, a contact sexual crime under Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In both cases, as part of the plea bargaining process, the sex offenses involving contact were dismissed.

All three cases in this post illustrate repeated patterns of inappropriate behaviorThis blog post is written to directly, frankly and intrusively inform readers of the breadth and scope of sexual assault in the Coast Guard – your Coast Guard, our Coast Guard, America’s Coast Guard.

A male petty officer at a small boat station engaged in repeated, sexually harassing behavior toward other men, junior to him, at the same unit that included both physical touching and verbal comments. He flashed his male co-workers, and put his hands on their thighs, buttocks, and groins. He frequently tried to engage the men in wrestling matches and tackling drills. He also gave unwanted “man-hugs.” He touched his own erect penis in the presence of one victim, and masturbated in the duty room while another member was trying to sleep. He also showed a victim a picture of his penis. His inappropriate comments included compliments about the victims’ physical characteristics, such as “nice c***.” He also told a victim, “You look good on your knees” and “A c*** in your mouth is not gay.” He also said to one victim, “I will love you long time” and asked, “Will you be my friend with some extra stuff too?” The petty officer was reassigned to a sector once the allegations were reported and following completion of the investigation was charged and subsequently tried by summary court-martial. He was found guilty of maltreatment and was subsequently sentenced to reduction to E-4, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for 1 month, and 30-days restriction. He was subsequently administratively discharged for misconduct, receiving a general discharge.

A male petty officer onboard an aids to navigation cutter repeatedly sexually harassed several male non-rates aboard the same cutter. The petty officer engaged in sexually harassing behavior toward the men that included both physical contact and verbal comments. He frequently pinched the nipples of some of his victims while they were working aboard the cutter. He sometimes pinched their nipples in the passageway, a confining space in which two adults could not pass simultaneously. The men subjected to this harassment asked the petty officer several times to respect their space and stop touching them, making it clear that the contact was unwelcome, but the accused persisted. The petty officer told one man via text message, “I don’t bite. . . I lick!” He also invited one victim to his house and said that he would be great company, and told another man via text message, “I miss u!” and to come join him in the lake. The petty officer went up to one victim and asked the man to button the petty officer’s shirt for him. When the non-rate refused, the petty officer responded, “Is it because you think I like to touch guys?”

Several victims reported various incidents to the executive petty officer, but the XPO first instructed the victims to ensure they had made clear to the accused that the touching was unwelcome. The victims followed this guidance but the accused did not stop and several more incidents occurred. Finally, the XPO directly witnessed an assault and reported it to the officer-in-charge, who, in accordance with policy, notified Coast Guard Investigative Service. The accused petty officer was reassigned to duties at a District office and after a complete investigation was charged and subsequently tried by special court-martial. He pled guilty to assault, maltreatment, and providing a false official statement and was sentenced to three months’ confinement and reduction to E-4. He was subsequently administratively discharged for misconduct, receiving an other than honorable discharge.

A male petty officer assigned to a medium endurance cutter repeatedly sexually harassed a female non-rate assigned to the same cutter. The petty officer repeatedly sexually harassed the victim by making sexual and vulgar comments to her and suggesting sexual acts she could do to him. In one instance, he offered to send her a picture of his penis. In another, he asked her if they could be casual sex partners. During a port call, the accused went out on liberty and drank throughout the day and evening. When he returned to the cutter, he noticed that the victim was the security watchstander. He followed her below deck into a machinery space while she was on a round, knowing she would be alone, and with the specific purpose of sexually propositioning her. With his victim isolated, the petty officer demanded oral sex and exposed his erect penis to her. The accused was tried by a special court-martial and pled guilty to maltreatment and sexual harassment, indecent exposure, using indecent language, and being drunk and disorderly. The petty officer was sentenced to seven months confinement, reduction to E-1, forfeiture of $990 per month for seven months, and a bad conduct discharge. Due to a pre-trial agreement, the confinement was disapproved and no brig time was served.

These three cases highlight the connection between command climate, sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the need to take direct action when confronted with inappropriate and/or illegal behavior. They also illustrate how repeated patterns of inappropriate behavior present intervention opportunities.

The 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, published January 18, 2013, indicated that of those female respondents who said they were recipients of unwanted sexual contact, 30 percent indicated that the offender sexually harassed them before or after the situation, eight percent indicated the offender stalked them and 20 percent indicated the offender both sexually harassed and stalked them. Of the male respondents who said they were recipients of unwanted sexual contact, 19 percent indicated the offender sexually harassed them before or after the situation, two percent said the offender stalked them and 21 percent indicated the offender both sexually harassed and stalked them.

The first two cases in the review should also serve as a means of increasing your awareness of the one of the least discussed types of sexual assault in the Coast Guard – male-on-male sexual assault.

“Men need to know that if they make a report of sexual harassment or sexual assault, both will be taken seriously and will be vigorously, thoroughly and professional investigated in accordance with Coast Guard policy,” said Wren. “Victimization of both genders is an ongoing problem in the military. Following policy and procedure in the prompt handling of these cases is the only way the problem is ever going to be eliminated.”

“Bystanders can make a difference in these cases by continually being on the lookout for inappropriate behaviors by anyone – regardless of rank or gender – and safely intervening and/or reporting the behavior,” said Wren. “To report a sexual assault, Coast Guard men and women should contact the nearest Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) and for incidents of sexual harassment, Coast Guard men and women should contact their Civil Rights Service Provider”

Feedback from the Junior Council’s focus groups, the SAPR Summit, and various informal networks within the Service, clearly indicate that the inability to acknowledge that sexual assault occurs in the Coast Guard frustrates our ability to address the problem and bring about change. The catalyst that determines whether or not command information provided to you will serve to bring about changes in behavior or beliefs, or, will simply be discarded or avoided, rests with you, the reader.

So I ask you, are you ready to admit we have a problem? Are you going to discard the truth about sexual assault and the call to action? Or do you have the courage and leadership to be an agent of change, to carry on conversations about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and command climate, and, do you have the resolve to intervene when confronted with inappropriate or illegal behavior?

If you have been, or think you may have been, sexually assaulted, contact your sexual assault response coordinator, or call the Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247. Information about reporting options and resources for survivors of sexual assault can be found on the U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program website.

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  • L. Thomas

    One thing I witnessed in my last year of service (2013) that I found incompatible with the SAPR program was a lecture delivered to a mixed gender cutter crew by a MCPO. The lecture was about taking care of our shipmates, and making sure that a drunk shipmate never got left behind. Over and over the MCPO emphasized how important it was to never leave a man behind, to babysit drunk shipmates and follow them until they made it back to the ship safely. This talk is being delivered to non-rates, E-4s and E-5s. In no case should a junior female enlisted member feel it is their “duty” to tail drunk and disorderly male shipmates around town to ensure their safety. A female E-3 was already being routinely coerced into duty driving for port calls, to ask her to stay out until all shipmates have slated their thirst is ridiculous. If a grown man wants to stay out until 4am in the morning and get plastered, then its up to male shipmates to convince him otherwise. The last thing we need is female non-rates feeling obligated to “take care” of such shipmates. The MCPO had a good message, but he did not tailor it for his audience.

  • http://www.uscg.mil/sapr Shawn Marie Wren, M.S.

    Good day, Ms. Thomas.

    I sincerely appreciate your comments and insights on your specific experience in the Coast Guard. You raised some important points on how looking after our shipmates should be conveyed. Looking after our shipmates is critical but irresponsible drinking should never be rewarded or condoned by anyone, particularly senior leader.

    We will certainly take your viewpoint into consideration as we continue to revise and update our SAPR trainings and communications.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write, and for your support of the CG SAPR program.

    Shawn Marie Wren, M.S.
    Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Manager
    U.S. Coast Guard