At Connecticut Maritime Association (CMA) Shipping 2017, Helen Archontou, CEO of YWCA Bergen County (NJ) facilitated a March 20th workshop on sexual assault prevention and response (SAPR) as part of Seafarers’ Welfare Parallel Sessions of the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA). Provided as a service to first responders supporting seafarers’ welfare, the workshop addressed a key concern for the safety and wellbeing of seafarers across companies, flag states, and employment status. The session was organized in partnership with the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York & New Jersey and Seafarers International House of New York.
A central theme in the workshop was identifying and recognizing all of the forms of sexual violence that can occur in seafarers’ workplaces. While most are sensitive to the urgency and severity of the problem of physical assault, the SAPR workshop clarified that sexual violence includes any form of unwanted, unwelcome, or manipulated sexual contact. Any action that controls, intimidates, dominates, shames, or humiliates another person through sexuality is sexual violence, including what might be brushed away or dismissed as bawdy humor or “boys being boys” while at sea. None of this is acceptable, Archontou and her team made clear, and every seafarer has the right to a respectful and dignified work environment.
Especially in the confined setting of oceangoing shipping, sexual violence in any form can wreak real destruction in the lives of both men and women seafarers. Anxiety, helplessness, depression, substance abuse, flashbacks, and other ill effects can result from offenses ranging from seemingly innocuous jokes to outright physical assaults that permanently traumatize the victims of such violence, leaving lasting scars. Archontou quoted a female student from California Baptist University as saying that even “being alone with a guy in a room really changed for me.” Men who are victims of sexual assault may have a different set of societal pressures. As one male student from South Carolina expressed it to a researcher: “I was afraid to talk to anybody about it because of the stigma I felt I would receive in talking about it.”
As much as both shipping and seafarers’ welfare professionals would like to eliminate sexual violence outright, the fact remains that these violations occur and must be addressed with appropriate responses on the part of both owners and those charged with the care of seafarers. Central to such responses is returning the sense of control to victims, who may feel as though they have no say or control over the rest of their lives. Archontou advocated simply supporting those who report sexual violence by believing the reports that victims make; refusing to assign blame or guess at the circumstances that may have preceded the assault; and respecting victims of sexual assault. Seafarers’ welfare professionals and all others who come into contact with assault victims can open the door to healing, reconciliation, and legal recourse in the criminal justice system if victims wish to seek it.
Addressing an audience that included representatives from the North American Maritime Ministry Association, seafarers’ representatives, and advocates for more equitable working conditions, Archontou noted that sexual assault rarely is motivated by base sexual desire; instead, it takes place as a result of seeking power and control over the perpetrator’s victim. Stories abound of the AB or other rating coerced into sexual acts to advance their status on board; men and women seafarers unable to return to their ships after being exploited by peers or superiors; and crew subjected to humor about their bodies or unwelcome advances by their crewmates. None of this is acceptable, Archontou made clear, and those concerned with seafarers’ welfare are extremely well-placed to address these problems, which are not unique to seafaring but nonetheless injure their victims all the more for being isolated and cut off from resources in crisis situations.
“This workshop was an excellent starting point for preparing chaplains and ship vsitors on how to be first responders in sensitive situations involving sexual assault,” said Stephen Lyman, Director of Seamen’s Church Institute of Port Newark. “As maritime ministry professionals, we welcome the opportunity to provide another level of support to those we serve. As we delve further into this subject in the distinct context of the maritime community that our industry serves, it is clear that collaboration with sexual violence professionals is essential to help us prevent and address it effectively.”
“We are extremely grateful that Helen and her team joined us this year to discuss such a pressing topic in providing for seafarers’ welfare,” said Dr. Jason Zuidema, Executive Director of NAMMA. “Our members, both professional and volunteer, are always eager to learn more about how they can serve the seafarers that keep world trade afloat. These men and women are deserving of the same protections that all of us expect in our land-based work lives; why should they be treated any differently because they work at sea?”
“The opportunity for YWCA Bergen County’s healingSPACE to bring our specialized knowledge and training to first responders supporting seafarers’ welfare is an honor for us,” said Archontou. “I have been impressed with the leadership’s commitment to developing a strong education, outreach, and advocacy effort for sexual violence prevention and response. We are committed to continuing this partnership to reduce the incidence and devastating consequences of sexual violence for the seafarer community and society as a whole. ”
NAMMA, the professional association of North American seafarers’ welfare providers, exists to provide a network for encouragement, training, and coordination of ministries that serve port communities in North America. Concerned with all levels of welfare, NAMMA members care for the spiritual needs that individuals express, the basic material needs of seafarers in search of supplies and recreation, and the advocacy owed to those who fall victim to assault in their working lives. “CMA has long hosted NAMMA as partners in a productive and efficient shipping industry” wrote Dr. Zuidema. “We appreciate the hospitality extended by shipping at this premier conference and sincerely thank those who join us in recognizing that happy, healthy seafarers ensure that this industry remains the backbone of global commerce.”
Dr. Michael Skaggs is Director of Programs for the North American Maritime Ministry Association. A historian of religion by training, Michael joined NAMMA to provide pastoral service during an otherwise hectic academic career. When not advocating for seafarers’ welfare and finding solutions to improve the working lives of mariners, he studies interfaith relations in the twentieth century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.