Sexist behavior by mids allowed to thrive too long

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 01, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Having infuriated nobody much except the U.S. Naval Academy, its commanding officers, and by extension the entire Navy family on land and sea around the globe, Dr. Carol Burke heaves a sigh familiar to anyone who has ever had a mother.

It's a sigh that says, "Boys will be boys. But why?"

She's an authority on such matters. Dr. Burke, now associate dean of arts and sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, taught English and directed the writing center at the Naval Academy for seven years, ending in the spring of 1991.

Last month, she wrote an article for the New Republic based on her years in Annapolis, called "Dames at Sea." The magazine's editors liked the piece so much that they splashed it on the cover with this line: "The Navy's Sex Jokes." But nobody at the Naval Academy is laughing.

Taking dark note of the highly publicized Tailhook convention scandal, in which naval officers allegedly assaulted 26 women (some of them fellow officers), Burke's sketch of life at the Naval Academy makes it seem an absolute breeding ground for such Neanderthal behavior.

Academy officials have quietly gone ballistic. Superintendent Thomas Lynch says none of the incidents Burke cites was ever "officially" condoned. Other brass say Burke should have spoken to academy officials before making anything public. They also say her accounts are based on ancient history.

"Ancient history?" Burke said yesterday. "I don't think so. Some of this was going on in the spring of '91, when I left. I told the dean about it. I talked with other officials. I told the dean about the secret society, the WUBA Klux Klan. He said he'd check into it. But, with the Navy, you bring up something embarrassing and then never hear about it again."

You want examples? As this is a family newspaper, the mildest ones will have to suffice.

The WUBA Klux Klan, for example. WUBA is an acronym which originally stood for Women's Uniform Blue Alpha but has since come, unofficially, to be translated as Women Used By All. The WUBA Klux Klan is the school's secret collection of outspoken critics of women in the military. They've solicited members to rid the academy of women.

"Women at the Naval Academy," Burke writes, "learn to accept silently what many view as intimidation. Like their male counterparts, they quickly learn that complaining of mistreatment is viewed as a sign of weakness and draws unwanted attention to them.

"Their immediate supervisors, upperclassmen who have themselves withstood humiliating abuse and whose job it is to test these recruits daily, favor those who stoically withstand interrogation and intimidation."

What Burke paints are not so much individual outrages as random, daily routines such as this (relatively mild) sadomasochistic cadence call sung during her tenure in Annapolis:

"The ugliest girl I ever did see/

Was beatin' her face against a tree./

I picked her up; I punched her twice/

She said, 'Oh, middie, you're much too nice."

Burke writes, "Women students . . . must learn to cope with virulent forms of ridicule deeply rooted in Naval Academy traditions.

On Sunday nights each company awards 'the brick' to the

midshipman whose date is judged the ugliest of the weekend.

"After 'Pig Pushes' (dances to which girls from private schools in the Baltimore and Philadelphia areas are bused), the midshipman who dances with 'the biggest pig' wins a pool of money collected from his fellow company members."

In a letter sent to the New Republic, Rear Adm. Thomas Lynch, the Naval Academy superintendent, calls the magazine portrait "inaccurate. . . . Some elements of the essay may have occurred in the past; however, they were never condoned by the administration."

What's more, Lynch says the academy has taken pains to assess any sexist attitudes since "nearly three years ago, several well-publicized incidents brought academy practices in clear focus."

He's referring most famously to a female mid who was handcuffed by classmates to a urinal in a men's room, an incident that outraged feminists and other human beings but which one admiral referred to at the time as "high jinks."

"Such behavior will continue," Burke writes, "if not as an expression of the fighter/jock ethos fueled at the Tailhook convention, then as other forms of abjection."

Yesterday, Burke said she had openly collected files on routine sexist behavior while in Annapolis, a collection "everyone knew I was doing, although it wasn't until my last semester that I found out about the male glee club."

The reference is to songs sung by the club to amuse themselves on bus trips. The lyrics are too vulgar to reprint here.

Clearly, the Navy finds itself in an awkward position.

Academy officials say they've instituted a sexual awareness training program and tightened their grip on all activities, even "unofficial" ones, that might be considered sexist.

Much of this, in fact, was mandated by the U.S. Department of the Navy in the wake of the Tailhook incident.

"We don't see anything in that article which resembles the Naval Academy today," says Commander Mike John, the school's public affairs officer.

That's nice to think.

What's not so nice is this: Whenever it may have stopped, this behavior was allowed to flourish for a long time, and its seeds were those that eventually blossomed into the Tailhook incident and others too crude to report.

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