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Cadets of the United States Merchant Marine Academy Color Guard march
The United States Merchant Marine Academy, operated by the US Department of Transportation, trains cadets for the military and merchant marine. Photo by Chuck Little/Alamy Stock Photo

The US Merchant Marine Academy Grapples with Gender-Based Violence

Several dozen students at the academy have reported experiencing sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence over the past four years, yet no one has been prosecuted.

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by Emily Cataneo

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In 2019, Hope Hicks was a 19-year-old cadet at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, a federally managed academy that prepares aspiring seafarers for careers as military officers and as members of the merchant marine. As part of her education, Hicks joined the school’s Sea Year training program, which places cadets onboard working ships for hands-on experience. One night, off the Jordanian coast on the Maersk-operated car carrier Alliance Fairfax, Hicks was allegedly raped by the ship’s 61-year-old first engineer.

When Hicks went public with her story in a blog post in 2021, first under the moniker Midshipman-X and then under her real name, her story sparked attention on the maritime industry’s entrenched, pervasive issue with sexual assault and harassment.

“This is a really widespread problem,” says Christine Dunn, Hicks’s lawyer, who reached out to Hicks following the blog post. “It’s not a new problem. It’s been going on for decades. It’s been historically really underreported. It’s only been in the past year or year and a half that a light is being shined on this problem and people are being forced to take action.”

Amid this increased scrutiny, the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) recently released a report quantifying the alleged sexual assaults that occurred on its campus and abroad during Sea Year. The academy is obligated to issue a similar report every year, although the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the practice for a few years. Previous annual reports have been far less comprehensive than the latest report.

The report spans the past four academic years from 2019 to December 2022, chronicling 26 cases of sexual assault and 35 cases of harassment, stalking, and gender-based violence at the school. The academy has an enrollment of roughly 1,000 students, between 13 and 25 percent of whom are women depending on the year. The authors call for an “urgently needed culture change” to make the school and, by extension, the maritime industry safer for everyone. (USMMA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

The seafaring world has a sexual assault problem. In 2016, a USMMA survey found that 15 percent of female students and 1.4 percent of male students had experienced sexual assault at the school, while 10.6 percent of women and 0.8 percent of men reported unwanted sexual contact in a 2018 report. The equivalent statistics for the 2019–2022 period should be published later this year.

The maritime industry, says Dunn, historically has a “culture of not valuing women, of viewing women as not belonging.” Maritime schools also tend to be heavily male, inviting “a frat culture,” says Claudia Cimini, the executive vice president of the labor union Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association. Machismo and bravado are hallmarks of maritime culture, Cimini says.

Logistics exacerbate the issue. Extensive periods of isolation at sea enable would-be perpetrators and amplify the emotional damage and trauma for victims. Dunn says she was inspired to reach out to Hicks after reading about how the cadet was trapped at sea with her assailant for 50 days after the alleged assault. “I can’t imagine a more terrifying scenario,” says Dunn.

USMMA, for its part, is taking steps to change its procedures around sexual assault. In 2016 and again in late 2021, the academy shut down the Sea Year program to examine and strengthen its policies and procedures to keep cadets safe. It also instituted a program describing sexual assault prevention and response procedures that ships must follow before becoming Sea Year hosts. And starting in 2022, the USMMA campus itself fell under the jurisdiction of New York State, where before it was under the purview of the Department of Transportation. The change means New York State Police now have oversight of the campus, instead of federal law enforcement. The change, says Dunn, should make it easier for cadets to report crimes because it should be easier for students to reach local police than federal agents.

But observers and advocates say USMMA’s steps are only the very beginning of a much-needed overhaul.

Ryan Melogy*, a lawyer on Hicks’ case, former shipboard officer, and founder of the advocacy group Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy, says the report fails to discuss an essential component of the fight against sexual assault: consequences and punishment. Though the report mentions several students who were accused of sexual assault and harassment who were subsequently disenrolled from the academy, none faced further charges. “How dare they put out a report every year telling us how many unpunished sexual assaults there were that year?” says Melogy. “I think it’s appalling.”

Over the past three decades, no one has been prosecuted for sexually assaulting a USMMA student at sea.

That lack of accountability extends to the industry as a whole. Over the past decade, the US Coast Guard, which is responsible for investigating assaults committed at sea, has not revoked a single mariner’s license for shipboard sexual misconduct. As for Hicks, she and Maersk reached a settlement in late 2022. The Justice Department is still investigating the ship engineer to determine whether to prosecute. The coast guard renewed his license in 2022, although it levied administrative charges against him in March of this year for alcohol-related offenses.

The dozens of cases of sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence chronicled by the report are almost certainly an underestimate, Dunn notes. Stigma and fear of retaliation frequently keep people who are assaulted from reporting these crimes to the authorities. Hicks, for one, never told USMMA about her assault, so she is not included in these numbers. “We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Dunn says.

There is some light at the end of this grim tunnel, though. Dunn thinks the stigma against reporting is decreasing, thanks in part to people like Hicks. And legislation passed in December 2022 that levels a fine against companies that fail to report harassment or assault on their ships should help, too, she says. But ultimately, like Melogy, Dunn wants to see more cases investigated and more charges leveled against alleged perpetrators.

“You can have all the rules and laws in the world,” she says. “If they’re not enforced, they don’t do any good.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Melogy was co-counsel, alongside Dunn, on Hicks’ case.

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Cite this Article:

Cite this Article: Emily Cataneo “The US Merchant Marine Academy Grapples with Gender-Based Violence,” Hakai Magazine, May 1, 2023, accessed May 18th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/news/the-us-merchant-marine-academy-grapples-with-gender-based-violence/.

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