The power and trust dynamics on board merchant ships are quite unique. It is a dangerous industry, and a seafarer relies on their fellow crew members for their own safety and well-being. The rank system is respected and sometimes following orders is essential. Management structures vary widely from ship to ship, some are more ‘flat’ but on other vessels the structure is much more hierarchical.
Cadets and junior crew members are particularly vulnerable to abuse, as they may rely heavily on older, more experienced crew members to tell them what work to do, what PPE to wear, when to eat, how to stay safe etc. They may also find it much harder to challenge the behaviour of a more senior crew member.
When someone is sexually harassed or abused on board, they can’t go home. They can’t sit down with family and friends and discuss it and often they have no one on board that they trust enough to tell.
Sadly there are also all too many stories of companies and senior officers mishandling allegations brought to them. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of seafarers being given poor advice, being ignored, being made to feel worse, authorities failing to investigate alleged sexual violence, victims being transferred off of ships rather than removing the offenders, and cover-ups between officers. Unsurprisingly then, victims often keep their experiences to themselves.
This inability to talk about the experience can make it difficult to process. If a seafarer is unable or unwilling to report an assault, the necessity of continuing to work, live and eat alongside an abuser may force the brain to compartmentalise the hurt and the trauma until such time as it feels it is safe to remember.