Sexism in Military Academies 

Several years ago, West Point cadets initiated first-year students, including young women, by teaching them to sing the following chant while marching: ”I wish that all the ladies were holes in the road and I was a dump truck. I’d fill ’em with my load.” Years before that, Air Force Academy cadets sang similar refrains marching to and from training events. One chant described taking a ”chain saw” to cut a woman ”in two” so that they could keep ”the bottom half and give the top to you.” Two years ago, a West Point investigation revealed that a cadet on the rugby team had instructed a teammate to ”get your girl on a leash.” All of these chants and songs demonstrate instances of sexual harassment in military academies.

These incidents expose the entrenched sexism that is tolerated at the three military services academies overseen by the Department of Defense — West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy. They also help explain repeated reports that the academies have not taken complaints of sexual assault and harassment seriously. The pattern is familiar: Each revelation incites an outcry, the academies announce reforms and the schools’ efforts prove ineffective. What endures are the chants, and the institutional misogyny they reveal.

Absence of Title IX in Military Academies 

We are student members of a legal clinic at Yale Law School representing a nonprofit group that aims to eradicate gender discrimination in the military. The Service Women’s Action Network, founded in 2007 by female veterans of the Marine Corps and the New York Army National Guard, has long objected to the way apathetic administrators at the service academies have let students get away with harassment and assault.

Part of the problem is that the military service academies are not subject to the laws that have helped students at civilian schools force their colleges to shape up. Title IX requires almost all American schools that receive federal money to eliminate sex discrimination, including sexual violence. Students can file complaints with the Department of Education to allege discriminatory policies or practices on their campuses, including the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment claims. The Department of Education has opened investigations into more than 100 schools, helping to set off an important national conversation on campus assault.

But Congress exempted the service academies when it passed Title IX in 1972. Perhaps legislators feared imposing Department of Education oversight onto military affairs. Maybe they failed to even consider the possibility of sex discrimination at the academies, which did not admit women until four years later. Whatever the reason, the result of Congress’s omission is that the approximately 2,700 female cadets and midshipmen are deprived of a fundamental protection necessary for their safety and equality.

Reporting Sex Discrimination in Academies 

Students on military campuses can file individual complaints of sex discrimination and misconduct within their academies, which are ultimately decided by various levels within the chain of command. But they have no one to turn to when their academies mishandle their reports or engage in other practices that hurt women. If a cadet or midshipman who reports sexual harassment and discrimination is mistreated by her academy, she can appeal the decision within the academy system and her chain of command, but she can’t appeal the manner in which such decisions are made. Her civilian peers, by contrast, can bring such claims to the Department of Education.

As it is, very few cadets and midshipmen come forward to report sex discrimination, but not because they aren’t experiencing it. According to the Department of Defense’s own surveys and data, 8 percent of women at the military academies were sexually assaulted last year, almost half faced serious sexual harassment and nearly 90 percent experienced other forms of sexism and discrimination. Yet fewer than 5 percent of the roughly 1,400 women who were sexually assaulted or harassed reported what had happened to them within their existing systems.

Legal Reform in Academies and the Military 

There is a simple way for President Obama, in his capacity as commander in chief, to put an end to this impunity. To provide cadets and midshipmen with a meaningful way to challenge sex discrimination at their academies, he should issue an executive order modeled on Title IX’s legal protections. This order would, in effect, borrow Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination and create a pathway for Title IX-like complaints within the Defense Department. The president should also order the Pentagon’s inspector general to enforce this anti-discrimination rule at the academies.

Over the past decade, public outcry about sexual assault on college campuses and in the military has spurred legal reform. But one group at the intersection of these issues — women at the service academies — are still waiting for meaningful change. Last year, while announcing a new task force on gender-based violence on civilian campuses, Mr. Obama spoke to survivors directly: ”I’ve got your back,” he said. Female cadets and midshipmen volunteer to serve our country — the president should have their backs, too.

Source: Ashley Anderson, Elizabeth Deutsch, Stop Assaults on Military Campuses, The New York Times, (May 12, 2015) available at

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