Written by Angela Hirsch, chief, U.S. Coast Guard Community Relations
When we read about sexual assault in the Coast Guard from a staff assignment or civilian workstation, it’s easy for many of us to distance ourselves from the problem. We don’t serve on a cutter or deploy. We don’t live and work and socialize with our shipmates in the close confines of an operational tour. Apart from the occasional morale event, drinking with coworkers rarely occurs.
It is a mistake, however, to view sexual assault as an issue that is confined to the operational realm. Sexual assault is enabled by a culture in which our daily speech often falls short of our core values as a service. That culture pervades every community and every duty station. Consider the following:
Overheard: “You know, that hot commander – you see everyone check her out whenever she walks into a meeting.”
Translation: “I judge women by their looks, not by their professional abilities.”
Overheard: “Don’t worry about offending me – I grew up with brothers and I’ve been underway – I have seen and heard it all!”
Translation: “I am willing to stay silent when other women are mistreated because I want my male peers to accept me.”
Overheard: “I appreciate Barb’s passion for her work, but she really needs to lighten up. She’s so aggressive!”
Translation: “Barb doesn’t act like I want women to be – sweet, passive and quiet.”
Overheard: “Dave and Steve share an office and always work late – I can only guess what goes on in there after hours! But hey, that’s all ok now, right?”
Translation: “Men who seem too close are gay, and that’s a bad thing. And you all agree with me because you’re laughing at my lame joke.”
Do any of these comments sound familiar? We’ve all heard similar things in cubicles, carpools and the gym. Are these comments the same thing as physical sexual assault? Of course not. But these comments convey both the spoken and the unspoken message. When we hear them and stay silent, we tell our peers these views are okay. We teach our junior members that it is more important to get along than to speak out. And, we create and condone a military culture where sexual assault is possible.
In the long term, preventing sexual assault means changing attitudes. When inappropriate jokes and comments aren’t tolerated in the locker room and the mess deck, the culture starts to change everywhere. When we synch up our words with our core values and commit to treating everyone with respect, disrespectful language is revealed as archaic and crass. And shipmates – both men and women — feel empowered to speak up against it.
“She’s great at her job. You sound like a total cave dweller when you talk about her that way.”
“You shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of talk. Actually, none of us should – it’s not cool, guys.”
“We could use a few more hard chargers like her – in fact, you could learn a thing or two from her. Get back to work.”
“C’mon, gay jokes are lame. You need some new material.”
Our workforce has committed to eliminating sexual assault from the Coast Guard through better policies, training, victim support services and communications. We must also commit to driving out language and attitudes that serve to silence vulnerable shipmates and empower potential predators. That commitment is an expression of honor, respect and devotion to duty that strengthens our service, wherever we serve.