Confronting the Issue of Sexual Abuse on Cruise Ships

Embarking on a cruise vacation is often associated with adventure, relaxation, and unparalleled experiences. However, an unsettling issue lurks beneath the surface of these idyllic adventures — the problem of sexual abuse on cruise ships. This challenging topic is frequently brushed under the proverbial carpet due to a mix of factors like fear, shame, and the complexity of maritime laws.

Sex crimes far outweigh any other major offense on cruise ships, accounting for nearly 70% of all reported crimes. To exacerbate the situation, many victims are minors.

The troubling issue of sexual assault on cruise ships is not a recent phenomenon. Despite years of reporting on these crimes, the public has only had access to a more complete picture since 2016, when reporting standards were changed. Still, it’s widely accepted that the true numbers are even higher, as sex crimes are notoriously under-reported. The classification of an incident as assault also largely depends on the cruise line’s security officials, leading to frequent misclassification and a further decrease in reporting.

The distinctive environment of a cruise ship often contributes to the prevalence of sexual assault. The relaxing atmosphere, the feeling of security, and the abundance of alcohol can create conditions conducive to such crimes. Passengers, particularly teenagers, who roam the ships freely, often find themselves in vulnerable situations.

This grim reality is rarely prosecuted, lending a sense of impunity to the perpetrators. Cruise company investigations usually result in dismissals rather than criminal prosecution, and the legal complexities involved with jurisdiction further complicate matters. Most ships sail under the flags of foreign countries like the Bahamas, Panama, or Liberia, making local and international jurisdiction a messy affair.

In 2018, for instance, of the 120 alleged crimes reported by cruise lines to the DOT, a staggering 82 were sexual assaults. In 2022, 87 alleged sexual assaults were reported on cruise ships — the second-highest number of such incidents recorded since the US Department of Transportation began publishing crime data in 2010.

Despite these alarming numbers, the cruise industry has often argued that the allegations of crime onboard cruise ships are rare. Victims face an uphill battle in civil court, often going through a draining process that can take years. They are required to recount their harrowing experiences during depositions, often with scant evidence like surveillance footage. 

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a pause on cruises, the industry is steadily rebounding, with the number of sexual assault allegations shooting up as passengers return.

The onus of ensuring passenger safety undeniably rests with the cruise companies. Yet, it’s often the case that these companies fall short in their duty of care, whether intentionally or due to systemic failures. Unsurprisingly, maritime laws and jurisdictional challenges often tip the scales of justice in favor of these corporations, leaving victims without recourse.

That said, victims of sexual abuse on cruise ships are not without options. Despite the daunting complexity of the legal landscape, they are encouraged to seek legal help. Attorneys who specialize in maritime law can guide victims through these treacherous waters, making sure their voices are amplified, and their rights, defended. 

At Baron & Herskowitz, we are committed to providing compassionate, confidential, and robust legal representation to help survivors on their journey to recovery and justice. Contact us today.

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