When the passenger came to, she was on a deck aboard the M/V Norwegian Sky, crying hysterically and trying to figure out how she’d wound up there. Her vaginal area was sore, and the last thing she could remember was being trapped in a storage room by the bartender who’d served her last Long Island Iced Tea and pushing her head down towards his penis, telling her to “be a good girl.”
In a lawsuit filed yesterday in Florida’s Southern District Court, the woman, a Georgia resident who is identified only as “Jane Doe,” claims the bartender singled her out as a target as soon as the Bahamas-bound ship set sail. He plied her with alcohol and may have drugged her last drink. Once she became visibly disoriented, he brought her to an isolated storage room that only crew members could access, locked the door, and refused to let her out, even though she screamed and begged. Not long after, she blacked out.
Though there are many good reasons to both enjoy cruises (relaxation, beautiful sights, bountiful food) and avoid them( terrible DJs, seasickness, the norovirus,) the possibility of being raped on board is rarely considered. However, sexual assaults are disturbingly prevalent.
Google “cruise ship rape” and you can easily spend the rest of the day reading horrifying stories: a woman who says she was raped in front of her two kids, an employee who allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl, a passenger whose attacker pled guilty to beating her with a curling iron and trying to throw her overboard. A previous New Times investigation found that Carnival Cruise Lines had not only tried to dissuade victims from reporting incidents to the authorities, but also helped employees who had been accused of rape to quickly exit the country before they could be investigated.
Since then, there have been some small improvements: in 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, which requires cruise lines to report crimes that involve U.S. citizens to the FBI and to publicly disclose their crime statistics. But that hasn’t eliminated the problem. During the first three months of 2016, the most recent timeframe for which data is available, there were 17 sexual assaults on board U.S.-based cruise ships. That averages out to more than one per week, and doesn’t even include crimes against passengers or employees who are not American citizens.
It’s hard to say why there are so many sexual assaults on cruise ships. But the lawsuit filed against Norwegian Cruise Lines by the Miami-based Hickey Law Firm hints at a few contributing factors. It blames the company for encouraging heavy drinking by advertising promotions like “the Norwegian Sky Free Open Bar Unlimited Beverage Package,” but not looking out for the safety of guests who are over- served. It also criticizes the company’s hiring practices, arguing that it should conduct more thorough background checks and monitor crew members more closely in order to provide a safer environment for female passengers. (Norwegian Cruise Lines has yet to comment on the lawsuit.)
“You have a false sense of security because the crew and the bar servers are trained to be friendly and service-minded,” the plaintiff's lawyer, Bjorg Eikeland, tells New Times. "People drink more on the ships because they know they're not going to have to drive home."
If the case ends up going to trial, it should shed some light on how the cruise line handles reported rapes. The lawsuit claims that after Jane Doe told Norwegian employees she’d been raped, they took her to her room in a wheelchair and forced her to drink water, instead of taking her to the infirmary to perform an exam with a rape kit. When she was finally taken to the infirmary, she’d already urinated three times. By then, the evidence—which could have proved she’d been raped and her drink was spiked—was tainted.
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John Hickey, who is also representing the plaintiff, says it's not uncommon for employees on board cruise ships to mistreat the victims of sexual assault. "They typically treat any passenger who reports things like this like they’re adversaries right away," he says. "They're trained to protect the reputation of the cruise line."
But when you're surrounded by miles of ocean in every direction, it's not like there's anyone else you can call.
You can view the full complaint here: