"I didn’t think anyone would believe me."
It’s a phrase whose echoes we've unfortunately heard over and over again, when young women are harassed or assaulted, especially by powerful, often older men.
Now, a senior at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point has written it as part of a courageous, yet disturbing, blog post detailing how a 60-plus-year-old merchant marine engineer allegedly raped her when she was just 19 and on board a commercial ship for her much-anticipated Sea Year.
They were at sea, with weeks between ports, when the incident happened. She was the only woman on a ship staffed with mostly older men, except for her Sea Partner, a male classmate who offered to help report it if she wanted to.
But while the Merchant Marine Academy had protocols in place for cadets to report sexual harassment, assault, or other incidents, it was clear this young woman, like so many others, didn’t feel comfortable doing so. The woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, noted she had been drinking — as part of a raucous gathering in which the ship's top officers, who should have protected her, instead encouraged her to drink far more than she should have. She said the man she accused was "one of the top 4 officers on the ship" and that all four were "best friends," including, she noted, the ship’s captain. "If it came down to the word of a 19-year-old cadet versus the word of one of his best friends who was he going to believe?"
And then, the day after the horrific events, the man she said raped her approached her to discuss what happened, ending the conversation with: "Ok, whatever. No one is going to believe you."
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We heard about it when gymnast Kyle Stephens told her parents how now-disgraced sports physician Larry Nassar had molested her. Nassar said Stephens was lying — and her parents believed him.
"Little girls don’t stay little forever," Stephens told Nassar at his sentencing. "They turn into strong women, who have come back to destroy your world."
The young Merchant Marine Academy student who made the accusations that have rocked the school and the industry clearly has that same strength, and already has made strides that could change her part of the world, too. International shipping giant Maersk announced it was suspending five crew members and launching its own investigation into the incident. But making an example of these men — as Rep. Tom Suozzi, who heads the academy's board of visitors, rightly has suggested doing — only will work if the threat of real consequences trickles into every corner of the complex web of industry, military and academia.
As the Merchant Marine Academy, the commercial shipping industry, the U.S. Department of Transportation and others wrestle with how to handle the young woman’s accusations and what must happen next, they can perhaps find some answers in her words. They've already started by indicating they are taking her accusations seriously. But this isn't about one incident, or even one woman's story. It must go beyond believing her, and even others like her. The tougher part lies in creating an atmosphere, a culture, in which future young cadets embarking on their Sea Year will be safe and if they are not, that they will be believed — and, just as important, believe they will be believed.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.