Sexual Harassment in Yachting: Survey Results

8 January 2019 By Aileen Mack

“He pushed me up against a wall, held my wrists behind my back, tried to kiss me. I tried to break free, he gripped my wrists tighter and continued. I eventually got free, but he grabbed me again, from behind, holding my arms behind my back and pulled me into the corner of the galley.”

This is just one crewmember’s comment submitted to the Professional Yachting Association (PYA)’s sexual harassment survey last year. And it was just one of hundreds. In 2018, Carey Secrett of the PYA conducted a survey on sexual harassment in yachting to explore the extent of the issue and encouraged crew from all departments on board and shore-based industry professionals to respond. With the impetus of the #MeToo movement, more people have been speaking up about the issue and the yachting industry is no exception.

A total of 870 survey respondents, including captains and ex-crewmembers, responded to the survey. Although the research shows that captains in their current positions were less frequently victims of sexual harassment, their survey involvement helps provide a more accurate perception of the problem, Secrett notes. About 65 percent of respondents have witnessed or been aware of an incident of sexual harassment, physical or verbal, involving other people on board, which demonstrates just how widespread the issue is.

Almost 40 percent of survey participants have personally been the recipient of unwanted physical contact while working on board, and about 50 percent have been the recipient of unwanted sexual or sexist comments on board. Although the majority of harassment examples in the survey were from female victims, Secrett notes that sexual harassment can be directed at any gender from any gender and the PYA has received personal accounts from both men and women.

Another shocking statistic was the reported physical abuse from other crew. About 50 percent of respondents said the unwanted physical contact came from a fellow crewmember, 10 percent from a guest on board, and 40 percent from both. Roughly the same numbers were reported of sexual or sexist comments — 49 percent from a fellow crewmember, 8 percent from a guest on board, and 43 percent from both. As Secrett points out, a vessel’s crew should be a team and have respect for one another, and this abuse occurred in what should be a safe work and living environment.

While a little more than 70 percent felt comfortable approaching their HOD or captain to report a case of sexual harassment, only about 22 percent actually reported what happened. When asked why they didn’t report, answers fell into one of six categories: I would lose my job, no one would believe me, the perpetrator was the captain or owner, I wasn’t sure who to talk to or how, I was embarrassed/ashamed, or I didn’t want to create an unpleasant atmosphere.

One item that was also highlighted in the survey — an increase in social media recruitment versus “traditional” recruitment. Only about 30 percent of the crew surveyed obtained their current job through a crew agent. As Secrett explains, this process is less regulated and vetting crew or employers is more difficult. “There is very little protection for who’s coming onto the boat and very little profiling of who’s coming into these crews. Then they just sit and it’s very intimate living space with not a lot of boundaries on some boats so this stuff can happen,” says Jenny Matthews of She of the Sea, a platform to raise awareness, visibility, and support for women in maritime sectors.

Karine Rayson of The Crew Coach says she felt a deep sadness for the victims and disappointment for the industry when reading the results because of the lack of support for crew at the time. “It was apparent that they didn't feel comfortable talking to the designated governing bodies, and there was a lack of information on who they turn to for support around these issues,” she says. “Crew are putting their wellbeing at jeopardy in fear of losing their jobs or not being able to find another one due to timing of the season.”

It should be a priority that this behavior be addressed and stamped out, Rayson says. As a result of corruption and collusion within some shored-based organizations, she believes this abhorrent behavior is brushed under the carpet and the perpetual cycle of abuse continues.

Sexual harassment, along with bullying, can have lasting effects on your mental health, and can result in depression, anxiety, PTSD, and personality disorder. Another issue as a result of sexual harassment is substance abuse, which can put the individual at risk and is a safety issue for others on board.

Ray Barker, head of operations for International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), expected that sexual harassment would be an issue within the sector but did not expect there to be so many serious incidents. “The unfortunate situation is that at the present time sexual harassment is not being taken seriously by a significant part of the yacht sector,” he says. “It is, therefore, necessary that all parts of the sector get together and start to develop realistic policies and procedures to address sexual harassment and all other forms of bullying and harassment.”

Sixty-five percent of crew surveyed answered that the yacht did not have a written policy regarding sexual harassment or they were unsure if it did. Making these policies more commonplace in yachting, as land-based companies have, is vital to ensure the issue continues to be discussed and addressed. Barker believes that the industry needs to establish guidelines and make it so that signing them and implementing them becomes the norm. He also advocates that crew read and sign harassment guidelines when they join the yacht. This extends to the charter guests, too. “Passengers/customers also need to be made aware of the guidelines and they should be circulated as part of the booking process,” he says. “In accepting the booking, they should understand that the guidelines apply to them as well.”

The role of the captain is the key to addressing the problem and the captain needs to be supported by those above them, Barker says. “There needs to be a significant change in attitude to sexual harassment within the yacht sector, and it is far better if the impetus for that change comes from within the sector.”

This survey has already sparked some positivity, including crew initiating open discussions and taking action to develop behavioral guidelines to deal with sexual harassment on board.

Read on to learn about these efforts, what crew can do, and advice on what to do if you or someone you know is sexually harassed.