What Civilians Don't Understand About Military Sexual Harassment

One Marine veteran explains why she's not surprised by the Corps' recent nude photo sharing scandal

One Marine says "I didn't feel like I could openly be fully human" among her comrades. Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty

One of the first things I learned in the Marines was that my male colleagues could easily blend in as one of the guys. My junior enlisted "devil dogs" traded jokey insults and shoved each other like a litter of alpha puppies, but as a female Marine officer, I learned early that our comrades' perceptions of us were often different – and limited. At Officer Candidates School, one female sergeant instructor stalked through the squad bay and yelled at our sixty-woman platoon, "If you're a woman in the Marine Corps," she hollered, "you're either a bitch, a dyke, or a ho." A few months later, I compared notes with a male classmate, who relayed how he was taught to drill with an M-16. "You're on a first date," the male sergeant instructor had said, holding the rifle in front of him. "Things are goin' good and you're snugglin'. You decide to go for it. Now she might smack your hand away. So you gotta be quick! You gotta grab the goodies!" He'd grabbed the rifle's handguard, a stand-in for the date's breasts, and brought his weapon down to the position of attention.

Those kinds of experiences are why I'm not surprised about the Corps' recent nude photo sharing scandal, or that misogyny remains alive and well in online military communities.

As a young lieutenant, I laughed off those stories and comments, thinking, they don't mean me. Having grown up with only brothers, I identified with the guys. There is a little-known fourth option to the bitch-dyke-ho trifecta: everyone's kid sister. As a nerdy tomboy, I cut my hair short and plastered on a super-smart professional shell. I taught martial arts and threw footballs with my junior Marines. I skateboarded with my male boss while deployed to Iraq. And when one of my senior enlisted opened a desk drawer to accidentally reveal a photo of his naked wife (whom I recognized from the fully-clothed photos lining his office), all I remember thinking was, "Looks like they’ve got a good marriage!"

By contrast, I kept my few relationships low-profile. I cut off my vestigial femininity and buried all emotions other than anger. These tactics worked; professionally, I was well respected. But it came at a price.

I didn't feel like I could openly be fully human. I was simultaneously ashamed of my plainness yet unwilling to change, lest I be viewed as anything other than highly competent. At the time, I thought less of my fellow female lieutenants who wore sexy Halloween costumes, openly dated other officers, and seemed to effortlessly attract male attention whenever we went out. It was years before I learned the term "slut-shaming;" all I knew was that I was unwilling to risk their level of vulnerability. To be perceived as sexually desirable – especially in front of fellow Marines – felt like a sign of weakness. This double bind can especially trap military women, who walk a razor’s edge if they display femininity while working under a microscope of potential male attention.

The recent publication of nude photos is not solely about sex; it's about power, as Christina Cauterucci noted in Slate last week. I'd also add that much of our military's culture is predicated on gendered shame. Puritanical American attitudes still shame women who exhibit any form of sexual agency – who act on their desires and revel in their bodies, rather than passively and modestly awaiting admiration. For men, it’s the flip side of the same coin. Toxic masculinity encourages sexual aggression to the point of assault. Anything less than total domination, the ethos goes, is shamefully unmanly.

Combined with social media and GPS, the stakes of gender-based shame are high. The danger isn't just from posting photos; sites like Marines United enable stalking and harassment by listing women's names, ranks and duty stations. Most disturbing was the Camp Lejeune Marine who was surreptitiously photographed during a quintessential Corps activity: picking up gear. The resulting social media comments advocated sexual violence. This is criminal, cowardly, and inexcusable.

Men seem to post photos to these sites for two main reasons, both related to power dynamics. Sometimes, they feel threatened or slighted after a woman ends a relationship, and they post "revenge porn." Other times, they try increasing their status with a posturing "bros before hos" attitude. Both are attempts to cure their fundamental insecurities – to make them feel "man enough." Notably, one cover story for the Marines United page was as a forum to prevent military suicides. Perhaps a reaction to the vulnerability of airing demons was to balance it with hypermasculinity. And despite the fact that the Google Drive of photos was publicized the same month in which female Marines joined infantry units, this isn't confined to barracks talk among combat-hardened warriors. As Brian Adam Jones reported in Task and Purpose, many posts are by Marines in support roles, or those who have never deployed. Their online taunts as they revel in resurfaced sites only shows how these juveniles use gendered shame to act out their own insecurities.

The official response, at least, has been unequivocal. In a video address, Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller addressed noncommissioned officers to "do all in your power to prevent harassment or abuse of any Marine or sailor." But top-down admonishment is only part of the solution; wholesale culture change must come from within the ranks. Male Marines who are secure in their masculinity, who do not feel the need to puff themselves up by bullying their colleagues, must call out the cowards on their bullshit. Female NCOs and officers are faced with the moral choice to speak up, though they risk becoming targets. They need male Marines to be allies –  just as in war. Ironically, just a few weeks ago, the Marine Corps highlighted their conscious push to attract more minorities and women. How this photo scandal is dealt with can make or break that effort.

Throughout history, men have burnished their masculinity and channeled their aggression by joining the military. But more important than developing power is knowing how to wield it. Growing into warriorhood – and true manhood, not toxic masculinity – requires maturity that many clearly don't have. So I'm calling on my brothers in arms to channel their power for good. It's an attitude I wish I'd imparted on my Marines, and adopted myself. Don't be one of the guys – be a man. Anything less is dishonorable.