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

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It's impossible to teach young officers-in-training what's wrong with unwanted sex when even consensual sex is against the rules.

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Midshipmen toss their caps at the end of the U.S. Naval Academy's 2009 graduation and commissioning ceremonies (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The day before the second semester of my 26th year as an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Navy's two top men, the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations, summoned the Academy's entire student body for a mandatory lecture about eliminating sexual assault at the Academy. Both told midshipmen they were "angry" at the content of the "Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies," released in December 2012, that showed a 23 percent spike in reported cases of sexual violence and assault at the service academies (even though those at USNA were the exception dropping in a year). There should be no reports of sexual violence at all, the midshipmen were told.

The Academy's superintendent, a 3-star admiral who functions as our president, and the commandant, a Navy Captain that is the equivalent of a Dean of Students for military matters, sprang into action. That very night a new rule was instituted: A Second Class midshipman (in civilian terms, a junior) patrols the halls of Bancroft Hall (the mandatory sleeps-all home to our 4,500 students) until after midnight to make sure nobody was being assaulted; a First Class (senior) then takes over until 6 a.m. This is ridiculous for many reasons. I don't know that there has ever been a case of someone being assaulted in the hallways, which are fully lit and full of students. It also means even less sleep in an institution that already insists against all evidence that it can teach students to function on a boat under sleep-deprived conditions by depriving them of sleep for their four years of college—and then punishing them for "unprofessional" behavior when they nod off in class. (There are also suddenly mandatory musters in the middle of the night to ensure that students are really trying to sleep rather than do something else.) More fundamentally, this new policy renders more intense the atmosphere of fear and repression that has always ruled the service academies.

Am I saying that sex itself, of any sort, not just unwanted or of the assault variety, is currently forbidden at service academies? Yes.

Of course, as well as being unable to concentrate in class, the midshipmen are infuriated—as I know by talking to several groups of them in the days that followed the abrupt tightening of the screws. Many of the men feel that they are being told that they are potential rapists; some of the women are groaning at the suggestion that they are, or should be, afraid of their male friends and classmates. "What's the problem?" one woman asked. "I don't feel afraid, and I don't know anybody who is."

True sexual assault is of course a heinous crime and a big problem. But by and large the situation at Annapolis is not of this nature: Rather, there's a lot of sleazy but predictable young-adult behavior being made into something much worse by the over-reaction of the brass, and by their inability to draw distinctions between truly bad behavior and problems created by the unwillingness of a repressive system to acknowledge reality. Reportable behavior includes full-fledged sexual assault as well as "unwanted sexual contact" (which includes "unwanted touching of ...sexually related areas of the body"). I'm not sure that "unwanted sexual contact" in whatever gender combination can ever be completely stamped out in a college populated by libidinal 18- to 21-year-olds where men and women live cheek by jowl in alternating rooms, and where up to four men or four women share a single room. However, I can tell the brass how to radically decrease it and reduce the tension among students to a manageable level: legalize sex at the service academies.

Some readers will be puzzled: Am I saying that sex itself, of any sort, not just unwanted or of the assault variety, is forbidden at taxpayer-supported service academies? Yes. Everything is forbidden with any sexual overtones or content at all, starting with hand-holding and moving to consensual sexual intercourse. The midshipmen's short version of this is "no sex in the Hall"—Bancroft Hall, their common dormitory. But actually the prohibition extends to all of the 338 (partly wooded) acres of Annapolis's campus, as it does to the Coast Guard Academy and the considerably larger estates of West Point and Air Force.

We can reduce the problem with sexual assault by ceasing to police more normal varieties of sex. As it is, we make it impossible to show them what's wrong with unwanted sex when even wanted sex is against the rules. Because all sex is forbidden, we can't talk with them about distinguishing between okay and not-okay. All we can do is yell louder, threaten them with expulsion, create a hostile working environment (ironically, a punishable offense when expressed in sexual terms), make them even more resentful than they already are, and keep them up all night so they sleep through their taxpayer-supported $400,000 education. This is hugely destructive, and it also won't solve the problem it's designed to address. Young adults nowadays simply won't listen to older adults who are telling them that all sex is off limits. They tune it out. So let the brass "train" the midshipmen all they want. It won't help.

The justification for this bizarre policy of wrap-around abstinence is always that sex is forbidden on ships under deployment or in a platoon underway and the service academies are practice for the military. In fact, a lot of sex happens on ships and on deployment—as evidenced by the number of pregnancies that result from tours of duty. And by what strange logic do four years of college on dry land become comparable to a few weeks or months of deployment in the real military, a deployment that lets you go home when it's over? Besides, just the way you can't lessen the effects of sleep-deprivation by forcing students to practice it, so it seems unlikely that you can make short-term celibacy easier by mandating four years of enforced practice. Abstaining from sex makes sense under battle conditions or on deployment for short periods where the ship is going somewhere. It makes no sense for college.

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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