Building A Respectful Dating Culture For Mariners

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Part 1 of a two-part series on consent at the United States Merchant Marine Academy

From left: Hallie Breidenthal, a senior; Grace Poe, a freshman; Michael J. Domitrz, program leader; Michelle Underwood, Sexual Assault Prevention & Response program manager; and Lt. Anthony Baransky, SSO liaison

Last year, I wrote a series of articles about the involvement of The Safe Center in training new cadets at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point regarding the prevention of sexual assaults. On March 29, I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful USMMA campus again, when I was involved in community outreach on behalf of The Safe Center as part of a presentation to 700 male and female midshipmen in the main dining hall on campus. (The remaining 300 midshipmen are currently away at sea.)

The presentation was arranged by Michelle Underwood, LMHC, MCAP, victim’s advocate in the Office of the Superintendent, in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, #SAAM. For the past eight months, Underwood has served as the academy’s Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Program manager. Working with a team of Victim’s Advocates (VAs) on campus, she is addressing the needs and concerns of students who might be concerned about sexual assault both on campus and at sea, where approximately 15 percent of the students are female and 85 percent are male.

The presentation was provocatively named after Michael J. Domitrz’s book Can I Kiss You?

Underwood explained that the students were excited about the presentation, which was provocatively entitled Can I Kiss You? Earlier in the day, each student was given a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “USMMA Stands Against Sexual Assault.” Most of the students were wearing the shirt as they waited for the presentation to begin.

The Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Program manager works with a number of trained VAs on the campus to meet the needs of the midshipmen. I had the opportunity to speak with a number of them, including Petty Officer freshman Grace Poe and senior Hallie Breidenthal, a regimental sexual assault victim’s advocate and restricted reporting source. The Victim’s Advocates are part of the shipboard training on the ships at the academy.

“Grace is a very valuable member of the team and she is pursuing extensive training for victims’ advocacy,” said Underwood. “The 40-hour course is through NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance). She is also interested in doing training at The Safe Center in Bethpage.”

All of the VAs I spoke with were very engaged in their work and their mission at USMMA. Also on the team is Lieutenant Andrew Baransky, who graduated from USMMA in 2014 and now serves as an SSO liaison and on the Sea Year Sexual Response Team. Another VA is Nick Palumbo, an assistant professor of engineering at USMMA who has served as a VA for the past year. He graduated from Great Neck North High School in 2002 and USMMA in 2006.

The Importance of Mutual Consent

Baransky, who is part of the USMMA Strategic Planning Team and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, introduced the speaker, Michael J. Domitrz, president and founder of the Date Safe Project and author of Can I Kiss You?: A Thought Provoking Look at Relationships, Intimacy and Sexual Assault.

Michael J. Domitrz led the presentation.

The sought-after national speaker has appeared on NBC, Dateline and nearly every other major media and radio outlet and has been speaking to huge audiences, including schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and military bases, to wide acclaim for more than a decade. Domitrz was driven to work in the area of sexual assault after receiving a phone call that his own sister had been raped in 1989.

This led him to research the issue of sexual assault and dating on college campuses, where he constantly heard students complaining that most sexual assault seminars were boring and depressing. So he created a unique presentation that could effectuate lasting change and keep the students interested.

His interactive and informative presentation was powerful to behold. For more than an hour, he kept the interest of the 700 midshipmen. The students were honest and forthcoming in their responses, especially given the highly sensitive subject matter.

With the use of role playing and questions posed to the large audience, Domitrz addressed the pitfalls and challenges in dating relationships. He stressed the problematic role of alcohol in dating and hookup culture.

A drunk hookup is rape,” noted Domitrz. “If you need alcohol to feel comfortable in the dating scene, there is something wrong with your confidence. Alcohol gives you a false sense of security. Alcohol isn’t liquid courage. It’s liquid cowardice. If you need alcohol to lower your inhibitions, then all you are doing is lowering your standards.”

Read Part 2 here.

Kings Point resident Jacqueline Harounian is a regular contributor to the Great Neck Record. She currently serves as a rape-crisis counselor and volunteer for The Safe Center, a nonprofit victims’ services organization in Bethpage. In 2017, she authored a three-part series in the Great Neck Record regarding the response of legislators and the USMMA after reports surfaced concerning the sexual assault of female midshipmen on the Kings Point campus the previous year.

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