May 28 ------ We’re all blessed with a voice and today I’m using my voice to talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment in the US maritime community, including the history and what can be done to create positive change going forward. I’d like to start with an overview of Congressional and agency action regarding sexual assault in the US maritime industry. In 2008, Congress passed the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Department of Transportation and the US Merchant Marine Academy to conduct annual assessments of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the US Merchant Marine Academy, the federal school responsible for educating US merchant mariners.
I served as US Maritime Administration Chief Counsel between 2009 and 2012. During that period, I became aware of numerous sexual assaults of US Merchant Marine Academy students at the school and at sea. I requested a US Department of Transportation Inspector General investigation in 2011. I subsequently testified twice in 2014 before a Congressionally mandated panel about sexual assaults in the maritime community.
In 2016, then-Secretary of Transportation Foxx issued a stand down at the school to address sexual assaults highlighted in several Washington Post articles. In the fall of 2020, the Department of Justice agreed to $1.4 million settlement involving a US Merchant Marine Academy sexual assault victim. In September 2021, Midshipman X used her voice and shared information about her at sea sexual assault. Her story was shared worldwide and it triggered a second stand down at the US Merchant Marine Academy.
The school created Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture (EMBARC) Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH) Prevention Mandatory Standards (EMBARC Standards). Accession into EMBARC must be completed as a prerequisite before U.S.-flag vessel commercial operators to be authorized to employ USMMA students as cadets aboard their vessels. Midshipman X’s letter also triggered Congressional action. In the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, Congress required owners and operators of US flag commercial vessels to report sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints and incidents to the United States Coast Guard for investigation.
I’m using my voice to speak about the past to help you better understand actions undertaken to date. But the crimes are still occurring, so I’m also using my voice to share recommendations on steps to stop future crimes in the international maritime community. First, if you are victim of sexual assault at sea, report the crime to local law enforcement. It’s not enough to report the crimes to your boss or your company. Rapists won’t go to jail unless the crime is investigated by the police.
Second, if you are victim of sexual harassment, keep a diary. Write down everything that happens to you and write down who you contact as relates to the harassment. Write down who helps you and who ignores you. The diary is your documentation proving that the harassment and assault has occurred.
Third, private companies and the military are now requiring annual sexual harassment and assault training. I recommend that this training include information on employees who have been fired any/or prosecuted for committing sexual harassment and sexual assault. Employees won’t report crimes if they don’t think that there will be consequences for committing the crimes.
Fourth, companies have positional power as it relates to crimes committed against their employees. If local prosecutors aren’t prosecuting sex assault cases, companies should demand an explanation. Ask why cases aren’t going to trial. Ask why prosecutors aren’t holding rapists accountable for their actions. Ask questions. Demand answers.
Fifth, companies should ask unions if they have knowledge of any of their members being suspected of, arrested for, or convicted of sexual assault. Do they have knowledge of sexual harassment? If so, the companies should tell the unions that these individuals are not welcome aboard the ships. Zero tolerance.
Sixth, governments have positional power as it relates to sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Governments certify merchant mariner credentials and they can and should withdraw these credentials for individuals convicted of sexual abuse. Additionally, governments regulate ship owners and operators. If these owners and operators want flag state certification then they should be required to report sexual harassment and sexual assault to local law enforcement officials. Governments don’t tolerate alcohol abuse and they definitely shouldn’t tolerate sexual abuse.
Seventh, P&I clubs have the power to force change on their members. They could specifically state that failure to report sexual assault and sexual harassment in a timely manner and in compliance with the law could cause denial of coverage.
Sexual abuse is a crime. It’s a crime that I’ve lived with for 30 years, and I’m using my voice to advocate for sexual assault and sexual harassment victims. I encourage everyone to do the same.