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T-shirt is offensive: West Point, women's group

Nov. 28, 2011 - 09:51AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 28, 2011 - 09:51AM  |  
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Service Women's Action Network and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are condemning a website that sells T-shirts bearing cadet slang they consider sexist and offensive.

Service Women's Action Network has asked to stop selling shirts that use the word "trou," a slang term for female cadets.

"It's part of a hazing ritual," Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who is executive director of SWAN, said of the term.

Though little known outside West Point, "trou" emerged after women were first admitted to the academy in 1976 and derives from the way uniform trousers fit female cadets.

West Point officials said in a statement the website's offerings run counter to the values of the academy and the Army, as well as their sexual assault and harassment prevention programs.

" ‘Trou' is an offensive, derogatory term of cadet slang that demeans female cadets and is not tolerated at the United States Military Academy," Lt. Col. Sherri Reed, director of public affairs at West Point, said in an email.

The shirt in question bears an illustration of four male cadets gawking at a female cadet in a 1970s hairstyle, a tight-fitting service shirt and a miniskirt, under the words, "You Can't Spell Trouble Without TROU!"

The site also sells a T-shirt that reads, "Old Trou," a play on the academy term, "Old Grad."

The company, launched by 2004 West Point graduates Kevin Powell and Travis Dent, advertises its T-shirts as humorous. Among the West Point in-jokes referenced on them are a Chinese restaurant near the academy, anti-Navy football slogans and the "green girl," which is slang for a comforter given to cadets.

Dent told Army Times the company is not pulling the T-shirts. The shirt with the illustration was vetted by his female friends, he said, and has since become a top seller among his female customers.

"We got a handful of emails asking if it was disrespectful to women; some people thought it was degrading to them," Dent said. "There are others who feel that it's an endearing term and ‘I like it.' I don't know if it's a generational thing."

Bhagwati countered that servicewomen often will not speak out against behavior that, outside of the military, would be deemed sexist.

"Sexist terminology is used militarywide and unfortunately, a lot of military personnel male and female don't call it out," she said. "They don't realize it's a form of sexual harassment. Women adopt these coping mechanisms where it's no big deal. Well, it is."

Bhagwati, whose condemnation of the T-shirts preceded the school's, said the term is part of a continuum of sexism, sexual harassment and assault that pervades the service academies and the military.

"It's way beyond this one T-shirt," she said. "A culture condoning harassment very often leads to a culture of condoning assault, where we have high rates of harassment and assault at the academies and in the real military."

In the Defense Department's own surveys, 9 percent of female West Point cadets in 2010 had experienced unwanted sexual contact which means intentional touching but only 14 percent of these women reported it.

The survey was administered to more than 5,000 cadets and midshipmen across the service academies, including 1,173 men and 555 women at West Point.

Ninety-four percent of these women indicated they had experienced sexist behavior; 51 percent experienced sexual harassment; 57 percent experienced unwanted sexual attention; and 20 percent experienced sexual coercion.

The offenders were identified as fellow students in 94 percent of cases.

Reed called these statistics "not acceptable" and pointed to efforts within the academy to gauge and address sexist behavior among the cadet corps earlier in the year.

The school introduced four courses to train or retrain Sexual Assault Response Team members and address a requirement that all military and Army civilian personnel receive sexual assault and harassment training, Reed said.

She said a threefold increase in reports of wrongful sexual contact in fiscal 2010 over the year before is "further evidence of the positive results of training, and a decrease in resistance to put up with repugnant behavior."

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