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Thursday, May 23, 2013

A culture of rape and sexual harassment at West Point.


Tomorrow, the Class of 2013 at the United States Military Academy at West Point graduates after a grueling 47 months of undergraduate education combined with the most intense leadership program on the planet.

I know these people. They are my sisters and brothers. I was a member of the Class of 2013 (I left for health issues, two years ago), and I can attest to the fact that many of these soon-to-be officers are some of the best our country has to offer, in terms of character, intellect, and talent.

But for all the amazing leaders that come out of the Academy, the undeniable truth is that the cultural atmosphere at West Point is completely broken, and the leadership is either unwilling or unable to adequately address it.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article on a former sergeant at the Academy, SFC Michael McClendon, who was "accused" of secretly filming female cadets in the shower. The perception of the reporter is that this is currently an ongoing investigation, and the Army is in the process of contacting the women involved.

Actually, all the women involved were notified, but the Academy has failed to initiate measures to prevent this from happening again, despite it being uncovered back in May of last year.

Let me emphasize that: a sergeant with authority over cadets was caught filming female cadets in the shower back in May. CID (the Army's investigative branch) didn't tell the specific women until March, ten months after it was discovered. Academy officials only told the Corps of Cadets in an official capacity, this morning via statement from the Commandant.

Until yesterday, the vast majority of the Corps didn't know about it, and what was the response? Here is one male cadet's reaction that seemed to sum up the attitude of much of the Corps:
"I didn't like him, but I really respected him. He was framed because that one girl wanted to switch companies, anyway. It wasn't his fault."
This reflects a prevailing line-of-thought among cadets at the Academy and service members in the wider military: women who bring forward allegations of rape, sexual assault, or harassment must be lying, particularly to cover their tracks.

During my time at West Point, hearing about rape in a conversation with any male cadet was always (and I mean always) coupled with the assertion that the woman involved was only saying it to avoid trouble since cadets aren't permitted to engage in sexual activity on campus (or between plebes (freshmen) and the upper three classes, on or off campus).

She was simply "crying rape" to escape the considerable punishment that comes with this. Accused rapists were given the benefit of the doubt among a vast majority of men in the Corps.

But why would this happen? Female cadets are already put under a microscope to the point that many go out of their way to fit in with their classmates. The stereotype of "crying rape" is so pervasive in the Corps that it's a wonder any woman at the Academy would even take the risk of making a false accusation, or in other words, the misconduct board that results from being caught having sex would be easier to deal with than having a reputation among her class as someone who falsely accuses of rape.

The vast majority of women at West Point dedicate an enormous amount of time trying to avoid the negative spotlight and more on building goodwill with their classmates in a male-dominated environment, and a few of them do this by actively being the first to criticize other women and "be one of the guys."

An environment has been created in which women are not respected in the same way as their male counterparts. Sexist remarks, including rape humor, is open among male cadets, even in the most public of settings at the Academy.

The case has been made to me by several cadets that it's not the Academy at fault but the cadets, themselves, and although I can personally vouch that the vast majority of officers at West Point care about this issue and do what they can, certain instances stand out to me that many, including those with the most power, seem to not care all that much or at least, their actions indicate that.

Last year, a football player at the Academy was out-processing and e-mailed a naked picture of a woman he was dating to a ton of his friends, who e-mailed it to their friends, etc. Reportedly, there were grounds for doling out punishment for sexual harassment on a great number of cadets, so many that the the Commandant at the time, BG Ted Martin, "swept it under the rug".

More recently, the entire Army Men's Rugby team was brought up on a misconduct board for innumerable instances of sexual harassment. Each week, an e-mail was sent out on the team distro with the "highs and lows" for the previous week and were regularly laced with overtly sexual remarks about team member's girlfriends or just women at the Academy.

Pictures were taken of women on campus for this purpose and often doctored to be sexually suggestive. Other pictures were of naked women, unknowing that their boyfriend was circulating photos of them among the team. E-mail threads full of sex jokes about these women, including rape comments, were a weekly thing. Racist remarks were also an occasional theme.

Do I think every member of the team vocally participated in these threads? No because I know some of these guys, and they're great people, but they also did nothing to stop this. Something like this occurring at a typical college wouldn't be right, but this is different. This is West Point. These are future officers who are going to have to make tough ethical decisions and go against the grain at times.

And that's why it troubles me that it took someone outside the team to report their actions.

But what troubles me more is the response of the cadets (and the Academy). The misconduct board took place, last week, and instead of postponing graduation for all involved to the end of the fall semester, which would have been the appropriate action (if not expulsion), senior cadets are being allowed to graduate on time.

Their punishment? For the firsties (seniors): 60 hours (marching, back and forth, with a rifle on "the area"), loss of cadet rank and TEE leave (a few days off following finals), and a mandatory "respect mentorship" program. However, that program, normally taking between 6 and 18 months (it varies), has been shortened to 8 days to allow them to graduate on time.

None of this stays on their record following graduation. These are the kinds of actions that would get an officer easily court-martialed under UCMJ, but they're getting away with it, scot-free.

These are troubling enough, but it's when rapes and sexual assaults get covered up or go unreported that the failure of the Academy is most present.

During my plebe year, a classmate was raped. She told a civilian professor, who attempted to report it with her, but the case went nowhere. Why? Because the rapist is the son of an officer with ties to the Academy. Further, the professor's contract was not renewed, although it's unclear if that was related to the case. However, it was strongly suggested to me there was a direct relationship.

There are several stories of rape being covered-up that are unclear, and so, I'm choosing not to write about them here.

However, one theme that continually comes up with those at the Academy is the concern over alcohol playing a relationship with reporting rape. Because the consumption of alcohol is explicitly forbidden for the under two classes and for everyone on the main campus (away from the Cow Club and Firstie Club) and outside of designated special events, victims of rape face a tough choice: report the rape and take the punishment for alcohol consumption (which is severe) or simply let the rape go and avoid the trouble that comes with it, altogether.

So, decline to report the rape or suffer immensely from the punishment of drinking alcohol. Thus, for any predatory male cadet, it's a great protective action: get the victim to drink before forcing yourself on her, and then, not only will she get the inevitable backlash for "crying rape" but also punishment for consuming alcohol. Who would put themselves through that?

Listening to such stories isn't easy. A former cadet related to me the downward spiral she took after her own rape where alcohol was involved: intense guilt and shame, anger and hatred at herself for "being so stupid" and not seeing the warning signs the night she was raped and not fighting back and not being able to talk about it to anyone, lest she bring regulatory punishment on herself.

So, this 19 year-old who had barely drank a drop of alcohol before coming to the Academy starting drinking regularly to take away the pain. She would be separated for problems extending from this, and it was only after separation that she made her rape known, finally free of fear from punishment.

But what do the numbers say? Statistically, how widespread is rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment at West Point?

Last year, there were 15 reports (either restricted or unrestricted) of sexual assault at West Point, an increase of 33% from the previous year. According to a survey of the Service Academies, 11% of cadets/midshipmen who "experienced unwanted sexual contact" reported their assault, which likely means that an estimated 135 cadets experienced sexual assault during the 2011-2012 academic year.

According to the 2012 Service Academy Gender-Relations Survey, 49% of women and 8% of men at West Point said they experienced sexual harassment. 52% of women and 12% of men said they experienced unwanted sexual attention. 82% of women and 43% of men said they experienced "crude/offensive" behavior.

The most frustrating thing I hear when this is brought up is: "We're trying our best. There's no way we can get these numbers to zero."

It's as if calling attention to what is clearly a cultural problem, and West Point's top leaders' inability or unwillingness to address it, is grounds for accusations of "striving for perfection."

I don't want or expect perfection. The DoD's leaders have become infamous among activists for using the phrase "one sexual assault is one too many" when they appear before Congress or otherwise publicly address the latest sexual assault incident in the media.

But where is the action behind this? One thing that struck me as I was reading this year's report on sexual assault at the Service Academies was West Point's insistence that cadets are "taking ownership" of the effort to address sexual assault and harassment.

I don't want cadets taking ownership of this. The myriad of social alliances and cliques at West Point is infamous and frankly, makes it nearly impossible for cadets to adequately address this problem. It's how you end up with an entire sports team getting away with blatant sexual harassment just days before graduation. It's how you end up with this vicious cycle of unabashed sexism and sexual harassment in the open, cadets thinking allegations are overblown, and the disciplinary results against those cadets being clearly dismissive in tone against victims.

It's how you end up with rapists knowing if they can just get that woman drunk, the chances are almost nonexistent that she'll report her attacker.

I want the entire system to move outside the military, replaced by impartial civilians free of the subjective social restraint in the military that affects even some officers.

I want punishments for sexual rape, sexual assault, and harassment to be severe, as in: if you're found guilty of these, you're kicked out of the Academy and face criminal charges. No exceptions.

I want women and men who are victims, but drinking at the time of their assault, to be able to come forward without fear of reprisal.

It comes down to this: I love the Academy. I love its history, its priority of honor, and its constant focus on doing the right thing. How did sexual assault and harassment manage to get lost in that?

West Point is not only the greatest military academy in the world (and I would argue one of the best colleges), but it's supposed to be a bedrock of this country's honorable values.

"Duty. Honor. Country."

Statistically, alongside the honorable men and women graduating tomorrow will be many cadets who have raped others during their time at the Academy and many more who have sexually harassed others.

Why aren't we doing more to stop that?

CORRECTION (6/5/13): NO nude photos, reportedly, were in these threads. However, exploitative (and often doctored) photos of women on campus with overtly sexual captions *were* in the e-mails. On the other hand, Firsties (seniors) on the team regularly texted each other nude photos of women they were with.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/charlesmclymer

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmclymer

13 comments:

  1. Brilliant, as always, Charles Clymer.

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  2. This seems like an article that needs to be read and good job on having the courage to make sure that people are aware of what has been going on. It is tough to judge without being there but sexual harassment is never acceptable.
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  7. Hello, I was glad to read your article- specifically because I am a former cadet who is currently in the middle of a rape investigation with the Army. I was raped back in 1986 by a cadet who has recently been offered a generalship. I am a blogger who wrote an article in response to a FOX news article that highlighted Congress' threat to take jurisdiction for rape away from the military. This blog article was somehow reported to the Criminal Investigations Division in Quantico, VA. Even the person who reported it said, "I don't know if she is a stalker, but you should check it out just the same." The attitude is infuriating. Further, the CID has been asking all kinds of questions that clearly show that this full bird Colonel is implying that I was to blame because I was clearly a drunkard and a whore. Perhaps even his spurned lover. Quite sickening all around. It makes me sad to see that the class of 2013 is as bad as the class of 1987 in terms of sexual harassment- but I am not surprised at all. If you are curious about my story, you may read it at the following links. I plan on sharing your article on my Short Little Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/shortlittlerebel and https://www.facebook.com/shortlilrebel?ref=hl. Here are my Word Press articles. The Army has asked me to remain quiet about this investigation but as they appear to be tightening the noose to destroy my character, I have no interest in remaining docile for them. (p.s. I do wish you would delete all the spam responses above- they demean your article and the topic. Just some advice from an old blogger) https://shortlittlerebel.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/the-rape-of-a-female-cadet-at-west-point/

    https://shortlittlerebel.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/the-rape-of-a-female-cadet-part-ii/

    https://shortlittlerebel.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/women-are-apparently-to-blame-for-rape-in-the-u-s-military/

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