How to Stop Sexual Assault at Military Service Academies: First, Legalize Sex

The mechanism the brass use to try and force this strange prohibition involves use of the so-called "general articles" of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), numbers 133 and 134. 133 outlaws "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" (and is also used to police officers in training, such as all service academy students are). 134 outlaws conduct that results in the "prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces" and also conduct that "brings discredit upon the armed forces." These can be used any way the brass wants to use them; before the repeal of DADT, they were used against gay servicemembers.

Another article, the one forbidding sexual contact between officers and enlisted, has also been used to outlaw sexual contact between different enlisted ranks, as it is at the service academies. Each class year at the academies has a separate rank, rising (at USNA) from Midshipman 4th Class, or MIDN 4/C (freshmen, usually called plebes) to MIDN 1/C, seniors. Thus in addition to the prohibition on any sexual acts on campus, sex with plebes anywhere, any time (even off campus or on leave), is forbidden. Sex with the other ca. 150 people in your "company" (the student body is divided into 30 of these) is also forbidden. Thus if you think you might be interested in sex or romance with a company-mate, and it's otherwise legal (to repeat: never on Academy grounds), you have to get a so-called "love chit" and change companies before you date. What if you change companies (essentially moving in among strangers) and the first date changes your mind? Tough luck.

Advocates of abstinence before marriage aside (our students can't marry), most people will probably agree that "no sex in college" is a hugely bizarre policy in 2013. Back in the day, these rules actually more or less made sense—it's just that the world has changed and the military brass don't seem to have realized this. Before women were admitted to the academies in 1976 as a result of Congressional fiat (that the Academies fought until they had to accept), "no sex" was virtually a non-issue—expressed only as a ban on gay sex, cause for expulsion from the military, not just the academies. And it wasn't the academies, or even the military, that criminalized gay sex: that was the doing of society. Thus sexual assault was not a separable issue, nor was "no sex." Now 20 percent of our student body is female, with an undeterminable percentage of out gays. Homosexual acts are no longer criminal in the world outside, and homosexual orientation is no longer grounds for dismissal from the military. But any sexual acts, in any combination(s) of men and women, are. Sex of any sort, a background issue before if an issue at all, as moved to center stage.

Midshipmen are going to have sex with each other, or at least try. Our criminalizing all sex of any sort has tied our hands to any response but greater force and stronger punishments to sexual assault. We can't talk with the students to help them negotiate the line between permissible and impermissible sexual acts, simply because for us all are impermissible. Thus all we can do is talk at rather than with them, threaten them, increase penalties for infractions, "train" them incessantly, get them up in the middle of the night. The men increasingly see the female midshipmen as threats to their careers. "Stay away from the women," I've heard the men tell each other. As it is they call dating a female midshipman, even when it's legal, "going over to the dark side."

So let's start by legalizing sex at the academies. This doesn't mean permitting all sex everywhere. The military strictures against "fraternization," "frat," are only a codified version of rules we try to observe in the civilian world: no bosses with subordinates, "I'm not interested" means "back off," hands off the interns, and so on. No people in authority positions taking advantage of that power, and sex in the workplace is never a good idea. Yet for most people students look the same, whether freshmen or seniors. We create distinctions that don't exist by defining each of the four years as a Navy rank. Let's change this or cease to use the UCMJ to police sex between them (the "general articles" are completely open-ended with regards to how they are used). Close quarters in Bancroft Hall? Let them live off campus after a year or two, and marry or co-habit as students at European academies (as well as our Canadian cousins) may do.

We need to help them see that anywhere in the world, there are rules for sexual interaction. We can talk to midshipmen about the need to channel sexuality so society can function, what's okay and what's not, and why. Now we've lost them by forbidding normalcy and punishing its expression.

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Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author of Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide.

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