Cruise ships are floating hotbeds for sexual assault

The number of reported cases increased in 2023

Photo collage of a bird's eye view cruise ship. In the whitewater in its trail, the sculpture Rape of the Sabine Women can be seen.
Sexual assault is the top reported cruise ship crime
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Cruises can be enjoyable vacation experiences, what with all that unending food and entertainment. But spending days or longer in an isolated vessel in the middle of the ocean is not diverting for all passengers. Sexual assault is the highest reported cruise ship crime, and the numbers are worsening. Many have also accused cruise companies of covering up incidents of sexual assault rather than protecting the crimes' victims.

Watery boundaries

Since 2015, sexual assault has been the most reported crime on cruise ships, with more than 450 cases reported between 2015 and 2022, Insider wrote. While that number is high, a new report by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that cruise ship sexual assault reports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2023 increased from 2022. These numbers are also likely less than the true number of sexual assaults because, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, close to two-thirds of cases go unreported.

Cruise-ship assault statistics began being published in 2010 when the Department of Transportation passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010. The law required that "passengers have access to a written guide to where to report crimes that occur on a ship, the ability to receive a sexual forensic exam onboard and confidentiality while requesting or receiving support," The Washington Post summarized. The law also required that cruise lines report certain crimes, including sexual assault, to the FBI. The framework was necessary because cruise ships often travel through international waters and dock at various ports, all of which complicate legal protocol.

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Allegations buried at sea

Several major cruise lines including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and the Disney Cruise Line are included in the statistics. Carnival, specifically, had the highest number of sexual assault reports of the companies. Chris Chiames, chief communications officer for Carnival Cruise Line, wrote to The Washington Post claiming that the company continues to "invest millions of dollars each year in enhanced surveillance cameras in public areas," and that the assaults tend to happen in guest rooms where there are no cameras. 

One of the main factors that could be contributing to the assault numbers is access to alcohol on board the ships. In addition, bartenders on Carnival ships are not paid a regular salary and rely on tips, according to Jim Walker, a maritime attorney, giving the employees incentive to sell excessive amounts of alcohol. "There is a direct correlation between excessive alcohol served on Carnival's 'fun ships' and violence, in general, and sexual violence against women, in particular," he added.

While some sex crime cases have made it to court, many have been settled outside of it. "They will do anything to keep victims quiet," Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland told Insider about the cruise ship companies. "They'll try to give freebies, they'll try to give a nicer cabin. They'll do what they can to make a person feel better." Still, the industry group Cruise Lines International Association asserted to the Post that cruise ships are much safer than land and that cruise lines "face 'more robust civil liability' in court under maritime law than do businesses on land." 

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