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Op-Ed: Midshipman X is Not Alone

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November 8, 2021

By Elizabeth C. McNie

I don’t know Midshipman X, but I am floored by the courage it took for her to come forward, tell her story, and seek justice. Too few of us come forward. I was one who didn’t.  

Saying publicly that you were raped, assaulted, or harassed is fraught with risk. Midshipman X is already being blamed for the loss of the sea year at Kings Point and for affecting the professional preparation of soon-to-be officers. To be clear, loss of the sea year, and possible suspension of cadet shipping at the state academies, is the fault of both the industry and academies, who failed to adequately address these problems earlier. 

When women, and men too, come forward with allegations of harassment, assault, or rape, they can have their integrity, professionalism, competence, body, and previous romantic experiences scrutinized as if someone has to be perfect in every way before qualifying for the right to seek justice. Many women don’t trust that the system designed to manage complaints – or worse – has their best interest in mind. Additionally, women are often not taken seriously. We’re told ‘it’ was our own fault because we were too flirty, too drunk, too weak, or that the clothes on our back were too suggestive. We had it coming. You know the adage: A ship is no place for a woman

I was working in the Alaskan fishing industry in the 1980s when I was raped aboard a boat. Then, several years later, when I was a cadet on commercial cruise, I was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a ‘trusted’ ship vendor. I blamed myself for what happened rather than acknowledge the grit I had for being able to return to work later that day. 

Working at sea appealed to me because I wanted to be a vital member of a dynamic, high functioning crew – to be a shipmate. I know these values resonate with many. On some level, I believed that if I was ‘one of the guys’ I could inoculate myself from potential harm. I now know that I will never be one of the guys, that I never was. Now I understand that being a woman means that I bring unique assets to every job, and that those assets should be leveraged and appreciated and not be hidden. But that’s what I know today, and I’m an older and wiser woman. I’m not a young seafarer about to embark on commercial cruise. 

After I was attacked so many years ago, I kept my traumas secret, hoping that through hard work, and increasing numbers of women in the industry, conditions would get better. I truly believed they would. And in some ways, they have. For every ‘toxic’ shipmate, there are dozens of fantastic shipmates – allies, mentors, and leaders – who are part of the solution, not part of the problem. I value those professional relationships. 

But before we can make changes to shipboard culture, academies, and industry, we need to acknowledge that sexual harassment, assault, and rape is a problem more widespread than it appears. For every Midhsipman X, there may be dozens of seafarers who remain silent, as I did, in the face of such trauma. We need to recognize that cases such as hers are not isolated incidents but problems endemic to the industry. 

I work at an academy and I love teaching passionate, committed, and focused young adults who love the sea as much as I do. They deserve to have a safe and professional experience during their sea year or commercial cruise. Everyone deserves it, regardless of gender or age, seasoned mariner or cadet. 

This means allocating resources to recruit more women, and other underrepresented students. It means putting money behind better training. It means filling more boardrooms with women – women who’ve sailed – and hiring more female professors at academies. It means developing more robust mentoring programs for young seafarers, both women and men. It means taking actions and not just studying the problem to death. It means listening to many young women who are frustrated, and angry, and tired of being marginalized at best, and assaulted at worst. And it means acknowledging that every time we try to address these problems, countless women seafarers are retraumatized and still unable to speak their truth. 

I try to instill in my students a belief in doing the right thing, a knowledge that integrity is about what you do when people are not looking. A belief in kindness and in being a good shipmate. And truly, I believe our students are cut from a different cloth and capable of great things. We owe it to the next generation of seafarers to get it right this time, because so far, our efforts to protect our women seafarers from unimaginable trauma is falling short. 

Elizabeth C. McNie, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the California State University Maritime Academy – Cal Maritime and holds a 2nd mate unlimited USCG license. Her thoughts and opinions are her own. 

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