Rape Culture at the US Naval Academy

When I attended the US Naval Academy in Annapolis as an undergraduate from 2000-2004, male midshipmen used the acronym “WUBA” to refer to their female counterparts. According to historian Robert Schneller, the moniker originated as a reference to “Working Uniform Blue Alpha,” a uniform issued to female midshipmen. Despite hearing “WUBA” thousands of times, I never heard the origin story described by Schneller while I was at the academy. Instead, male upper-class midshipmen offered me a very different interpretation during my freshman year. According to them, WUBA stood for “Women Used By All,” or, sometimes, “Women With Unusually Big Asses.”

Use of “WUBA” was far from taboo during my time at Annapolis. Males who viewed their female peers as sexual commodities or threats to male dominance readily used the term. Others used it to avoid being labeled “pussies” for refusing to participate in the school’s culture of misogyny. On some occasions, “WUBA” slipped from their lips in the presence of staff officers at the academy without incident, and on others it formed the centerpiece of direct verbal assaults against women. I hope things have changed since I graduated, but I suspect they haven’t, and I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear of recent allegations made by a female midshipman that she was raped by several members of the school’s football team.

These new allegations constitute just one part of a much larger crisis surrounding rape and sexual assault within the American military. In recent months, the informational floodgates that had largely suppressed widespread recognition of (and response to) the crisis have seemingly opened. Rape within the ranks is nothing new, but the convergence of several high-profile events has suddenly placed the issue front and center in the mainstream media, as well as in the halls of Congress. In early May, the Pentagon reported that 26,000 soldiers, sailors, and marines were assaulted in 2012, a jump of 37 percent from the 2010 numbers. The report came on the heels of the arrest of the Air Force’s head of sexual assault prevention programs – himself an Air Force Academy graduate – for sexual battery.

The Pentagon statistics alone are probably enough to make many in the “support our troops” crowd feel squeamish, but the new accusations coming out of Annapolis threaten to tarnish one of America’s most reputable military institutions. Many on the outside see the service academies as mythic, cloistered training grounds from which young men and women emerge as courageous, erudite, and ethical “leaders.” Some civilians know about the grueling admissions requirements and the rigorous academic and physical fitness benchmarks. However, when I tell people I graduated from Annapolis, I usually glean from their responses that, despite knowing little about what actually goes on there, they believe that the academies are special places – places where patriotic kids learn not just about chemistry and classics, but also about “character.”

This is why, for many, the recent news out of Annapolis is especially jarring; it would appear that being part of the“best the nation has to offer” does not preclude being a rapist. Admittedly, we have known for quite some time thatrape and sexual assault are endemic to the service academies, and this is not the first such incident to make national headlines. Nevertheless, that the accusations at Annapolis have emerged in concert with frightening government reports and a series of incidents involving high-ranking officers makes it all the more difficult to believe that the academies are an exception within the larger military’s well-documented culture of sexual violence.

Perhaps the only silver lining to these horrific accusations is that they will add to the pressure already on policymakers to impose much needed institutional changes on the military. One of the only bright spots in an otherwise sclerotic Congress has been legislators’ response to the steadfast lobbying by groups such as the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the courageous testimony of victims of sexual assault in the military. Lawmakers recentlyintroduced legislation that would take the power to adjudicate sexual assaults in the military out of the hands of commanding officers (who often fear the professional consequences of disclosing assault within their commands, or simply endorse misogyny in the workplace). However, changing administrative structures is only part of the solution at the service academies and within the military as a whole.

None of the legislation under consideration helps provide an institutional framework in which the academies can confront the seemingly inconsequential, day-to-day instances of sexism that underpin a culture that condones rape. Take the use of “WUBA,” for example. Each time the staff entrusted to train and discipline midshipmen tolerates or disregards the use of the acronym, they send a subtle yet powerful message that it’s OK to dehumanize women. Midshipmen are harshly disciplined for tardiness and poor grades; they should also be seriously disciplined for casual sexism.

In addition, confronting service academy rape culture means reevaluating how we train military officers. Annapolis and other service academies vehemently promote a “take the pain!” approach to adversity which equates succumbing to physical or mental anguish with weakness. Undoubtedly, the incredible pressures placed on midshipmen and cadets to “suck it up” and “push beyond the hurt” discourages the reporting of rape and sexual assault by victims and witnesses alike. Self-sacrifice and discipline are important tenets of good soldiering, but officers-in-training should not embrace them to the exclusion of self-care and the cultivation of safe workplaces. In short, cadets and midshipmen need to learn that there is a difference between embracing resilience and tolerating rape.

Military leadership also needs to take more seriously the dis-incentives involved in reporting assault at service academies. The potential pitfalls of reporting are especially overwhelming at Annapolis, where women who disclose having been assaulted not only face intimidation and shaming, but also alienation from the social networks that facilitate survival in such a challenging environment. Midshipmen depend on one another to make it through each day, whether that means helping a roommate with their engineering homework or training with a shipmate struggling to prepare for an upcoming physical readiness test. The ostracism that comes with reporting sexual assault threatens to cut victims off from their most valuable survival mechanism: their peers. Academy leadership must keep this in mind when they receive reports of assault, and understand that coming forward involves serious risk (not to mention incredible courage). Given the potential consequences, it’s difficult to imagine any female midshipmen fabricating a rape accusation. This is not to say that we should do away with alleged victimizers’ right to a fair trial, but rather that those tasked with responding to the situation must seriously consider and account for the pressures faced by a victim willing to come forward.

Of course, fostering the social and cultural practices that respond to and preclude rape culture requires a service academy leadership that actually cares about the safety of female cadets and midshipman. Based on the recent accounts coming out of Annapolis, this leadership is still lacking. How else could officers at the academy justify hastily punishing the accuser for “underage drinking” while offering the same old litany of excuses (e.g. “the victim’s unwillingness to cooperate”) for not dutifully pursuing the investigation of her allegations? For this reason, it’s good that Congress is getting involved. But the proposed legislation is only a step in the right direction. Legislators and commanders also have to confront the seemingly innocuous instances of sexism that form the building blocks of complacency within academy walls, and develop the humility to admit that the victimized know more about how to recognize rape, assault, and harassment than they do.