The Law of Unintended Consequences (updated)

[updated my example to clarify that SA/SH is encountered by men as well as women and added explanatory comment at the end]

The administration claims that it has a major concern about midshipmen being unwilling to report SA/SH.  That’s part of what led to the sea year stand down cancellation.  We should all be concerned about making sure that any SA/SH incident is properly reported. But, did the “solution” make the problem worse?

Imagine a midshipman who, despite the sea year stand down cancellation was lucky enough to be assigned to one of the sea-going ships that the Academy deems safe for sea year; but, was unfortunate enough to encounter SA/SH aboard that ship.  What has the administration’s imposition of the stand down cancellation taught our imaginary midshipman will happen if she reports the encounter?

  1. S/he will be pulled off of that ship, for certain. My guess is that s/he’ll complete his/her “sea year” on a reserve force vessel sitting at a dock under circumstances where there is no way that s/he can complete her sea project  — goodbye graduation.
  2. His/her report might trigger another knee-jerk, poorly-thought-out, response from the administration. The “leadership” that failed to address SA/SH in the first place is likely to pull all of his/her classmates off of the ships, too.

So is my imaginary midshipman going to report the incident?  Obviously, it depends upon the degree of the SA/SH; but, I submit that except for sexual assaults of the worst kind, the midshipman is unlikely to report the encounter. The Academy leadership has created extraordinary disincentives to reporting SA/SH. I can say without hesitation that if I were in the shoes of this imaginary midshipman, I would not report anything other than an actual rape.

Unfortunately, my imaginary midshipman reportedly exists. A parent tells me that s/he is aware of midshipmen who have told him/her that they are encountering sexual harassment during the current version of “sea year.” The parent urged them to report it, but describes their response: “They say I am out of my mind because they don’t want their last means of possibly getting to graduation to be taken away.”

This is a classic example of learned behavior. It is also a classic example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. But maybe the administration doesn’t care about those consequences. With reduced reports of SA/SH, the administration can claim that its efforts were finally successful and that the SA/SH rate is finally falling.

It is time to end the stand down cancellation. And when sea year is restored, the administration should pledge to the midshipmen that it will never impose a sea year stand down cancellation again.**  Maybe, just maybe, if the administration still has any credibility with the midshipmen, then they won’t be afraid to report SA/SH in the future.

** When I originally drafted this, I wrote “will never do something that stupid again.” That’s too much to hope for; so I rewrote it to limit the stupidness to just the sea year stand down cancellation.

[update:  Someone pointed out on Facebook that my use of a female midshipman in my example did not acknowledge that males are also victims of SA/SH and that male-on-male SA/SH is far less likely to be reported.  It’s a valid point, and I’ve revised my example. One reason I have focused on female SA/SH is because much of the data we do have from the SAGR surveys is considered valid for females but invalid for males (due to problems with response rates or other issues with the surveys). ]