Over the past few weeks, it has come to light that several (at least 20, with many more expected to come forward) current and former female Marines have had private photos of themselves shared without their consent online – first, in a Facebook group of 30,000 male Marines titled “Marines United,” and when that was deleted, “MU 2.0,” then onto “MU 3.0,” and now, private sites that continue to be investigated.
The level of not just disrespect, but outright harassment and hostility against these women who have dedicated themselves to serving our country is sickening and cowardly. In the Facebook groups, there were both those who actively betrayed their fellow Marine’s privacy and belittled their personhood by posting photos and commenting and those who gave their silent approval. Links to women’s social media accounts were provided next to some photos, causing many women to receive stalking and harassing messages. Top leadership in the Marine Corps and many other male current and former Marines, have condemned the actions as shameful and antithetical to the Marine Corps’ core values. In a Senate hearing about the controversy, General Robert Neller said, “We have to commit to get rid of this perversion to our culture. Enough is enough. We will take action to correct this stain on our Marine Corps.”
This same culture has led to high rates of sexual assault in the military, at a time when women are increasingly being integrated into combat roles but have faced backlash. Currently, of the total Marine force of 184,000, only about 8 percent, or 15,000, are women. A 2011 study found that at least 25 percent of U.S. military women were sexually assaulted and 80 percent sexually harassed, with many more instances presumably unreported. There is not solely the high risk of sexual assault, but the fear of retaliation for reporting it. A 2014 study found that 62 percent of survivors – both male and female experienced some form of retaliation, whether social, professional or administrative.
Female service-members have had no choice but to accept that they will likely face some degree of harassment during their training and service – a position no woman, or person, should be put in. Justine Elena, a former Marine captain told the New York Times, “Almost every woman I know in the Marines has faced this kind of harassment, and you try to show you are tough enough to ignore it. But at some point, but ignoring it, you just condone it.”
While many agree this culture needs to be changed, and have been discussing the need to do so for years, there is a lack of accountability and apparent lack of direction as to where to begin. A culture change is needed, but there is perhaps a more immediate need to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is responsible for handling these cases. It is the most direct place to begin.
The military has its own internal justice system, governed by administrative rules and regulations. General Neller, in the Senate hearing, vowed to punish and hold the perpetrators of the photo scandal accountable, but acknowledged that there will be obstacles in bringing charges. This is given not only the logistics of potentially several Internet spinoffs sharing the photos – which the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has been working to shut down while identifying Marines responsible – but more fundamentally, the low administrative standards. Currently, those who face charges for the scandal do so for violating the consent and expectation of privacy of their fellow Marines, as well as distributing indecent materials.
However, under the current rules, military justice officials will have to determine whether the women had an expectation of “absolute privacy” – which is more difficult to prove. Some of the women’s photos were taken without their consent, while others were screenshotted and shared from private Instagram pages, or shared by ex-boyfriends. According to the Daily Mail, California Congresswoman Jackie Sperier recently introduced a bill that would establish harsher punishments, and change military laws so that the expectation of privacy would be changed to “photos a ‘reasonable person would know or understand’ are mean to remain private and who do so without permission.”
Adopting stronger standards and punishments would show that the Marines and U.S. Military as a whole truly condemn such actions, value their female service-members and expect that all do the same. Rather than being called “social media misconduct” – as one spokesperson simply described the scandal – it would be considered what it truly is: a crime. Much needs to go into changing a culture hostility towards women in the military, and it includes not just member-to-member respect and interactions, but also accountability at the highest levels.