Comments made by the Coast Guard Academy’s superintendent have drawn fire from a sexual assault victims’ advocacy group, even as the academy prepares to revise its sexual assault prevention training and has hired a full-time response coordinator.
Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz, in an interview with The (New London, Conn.) Day newspaper, attempted to contextualize reports of unwanted sexual advances among recruits.
“At a time when they are exploring their identity, it’s somewhat natural to have people experiment with what it takes to attract a person of the opposite sex,” she said, according to the March 17 article. “If, one time, a guy or gal is clumsy or stupid and tries to touch someone and they’re repulsed, they learn. Someone who goes around and keeps trying many times, that’s a different kind of behavior than someone who is awkward and experimenting.”
These comments angered Panayiota Bertzikis, founder of the Military Rape Crisis Center, and a former seaman in the Coast Guard and rape survivor.
Bertzikis said it sounded like Stosz was making excuses for rapists, and was insensitive to sexual assault survivors.
“Even if it happens once, it is still a crime, it is still a felony, you cannot be making excuses for sexual violence,” Bertzikis said. She shared her concerns in a piece written March 21 for the liberal political blog Daily Kos.
Her center has support groups for victims of sexual assault in New London, the home of the academy.
Stosz clarified her comments to Navy Times and said they were made in the context of the college environment of the academy. She said her comment was not specifically about sexual assault.
Bertzikis also criticized comments in the article made by Shannon Norenberg, the response coordinator recently hired by the academy. In the article, Norenberg was paraphrased as saying that she’d like to teach cadets how to protect themselves.
“They are putting the responsibility of stopping a sexual assault on a potential victim,” Bertzikis said.
But Norenberg also clarified her comments. Her focus is on “what we can do” — fellow cadets and the academy — to protect and help one another.
“I wasn’t referring to what you could do to protect yourself from being sexually assaulted, but what could you do to change the culture so that it would no longer tolerate it,” Norenberg said.
Both academy leaders were reacting to findings in the 2012 Service Academy Gender Relations Survey, which found that 9.8 percent of female cadets at the academy had experienced unwanted sexual contact. That number has increased since 2008, when it was less than 6 percent.
In the 2011-12 academic year, the Coast Guard Academy had seven reports of sexual assault, Stosz said.