By Lizann Lightfoot
Last weekend, news first broke from The War Horse and Reveal that a Facebook group, Marines United, had a link to a Google drive folder containing hundreds of photos of women. Most women pictured were current or former service members. Some of the photos were stolen from Facebook or Instagram profiles, others were nude photos sent privately to boyfriends or husbands, and some photos or videos were taken without the women knowing.
All were posted and shared without a woman’s consent. A few dozen photos identified the woman’s name, rank, and duty station. The photos were visible to the group’s 30,000 members, who are all men and mainly US Marines — active duty and veterans — and British Royal Marines. The photos had thousands of comments, mostly sexual and degrading. Some comments promoted rape or other acts of sexual violence.
The journalist who first broke the story, Thomas Brennan, is a Marine veteran and founder of the news website, The War Horse. Since the story became public, he says that he and his family have received death and rape threats and Marine United members have promised rewards for nude pictures of his wife and daughter.
The Marine Corps reacts
The Marine Corps responded quickly. Gen. Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, first issued a written statement. Then in a video released this week, Neller said, “There is no time off for Marines. We are all in 24/7, and if that commitment to excellence interferes with your ‘me time,’ … then I have to ask you: Do you really want to be a Marine?”
Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) is currently conducting an investigation.
The person who originally posted the link to the folder was a former Marine working as a government contractor. He has since been removed from his job. One group member who filmed a female corporal without her knowledge while she was in uniform picking up gear has allegedly been removed from active duty.
Because the photos were posted without consent, sharing them is illegal. “Revenge porn” is against the law in every state, as either a felony or a misdemeanor. According to a Marine Corps statement, sharing photos taken without consent or in a situation where a person had a reasonable expectation of privacy is punishable under Article 133 (for officers) and Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) with up to seven years of jail time. Any Marine “who participates in, encourages, or condones such actions could also be subjected to criminal proceedings.”
Mixed responses from victims
Some female veterans identified on the site have said that after they saw the comments about their photos, they would never want to reenlist. Lcpl. Woytek said pictures were repeatedly taken from her Facebook and Instagram sites and shared on the page. She said she and other victims had been afraid to speak up because of the group’s thousands of members, but because of the report, victims “have a voice now.”
Victims could be harassed or stalked for months, even after the site is closed down. Kelsie Stone said she had dated a Marine and he shared her photos after they broke up. Because she is a bartender in a Marine town, she feels humiliated when people recognize her and call her a whore. “Some days I don’t want to leave my house,” she said.
One of the first women to join the Marine infantry says the page has a terrible effect on unit morale. As a member of an infantry unit, she noted, “I’m supposed to be able to trust every male Marine. Right now, with some of the stuff I see them saying about women, that’s just not happening.”
Not all of the photos were salacious. A female Marine pictured on the site with her wife said on Facebook, “The photo posted of me was from the Marine Corps ball. We weren’t doing anything special, just standing there. Not all of the photos posted on the site were nudes, but all the comments posted were threatening, especially when your command is on those pages.”
However, other victims refuse to let online harassment deter their career. One woman we interviewed, scheduled to attend Marine boot camp later this year, had her photos shared by an ex-boyfriend. She said the comments made her feel “disgusting and horrible.” Nevertheless, when asked if it affected her decision to join, she said, “Absolutely not. I still want to serve my country as a United States Marine. I will happily overcome adversity and face whatever challenges I need to. If I don’t do it, who will?”
Marine Corps spouses have mixed sympathy for victims
Marine Corps spouses agree that sharing photos without consent is illegal and that the comments on the page are disgusting, but they have different degrees of respect for the victims. Spouses are most sympathetic to those who had mundane profile pictures used as sexual fodder. “No woman deserves to be sexually harassed online. Period,” said a Marine spouse in an online discussion. They also noted that in many cases, the sexual comments were not a reaction to a woman’s inappropriate clothing or behavior. It was a power play by men to demean a woman simply for being a female.
However, spouses are less sympathetic for women who took the nude pictures themselves, especially if they posted the racy photos online. One victim who spoke to news stations is a Marine veteran-turned-model. She posts nude photos on her Instagram account and sells them as posters. It is illegal for her photos to be shared, but some spouses feel she cannot complain about being on the site if she is already selling her photos on Instagram. One anonymous Marine wife said, “Women who post racy pics are putting themselves out there and just asking for this to happen.”
Others see that attitude as victim-blaming. Because of deployments and long training exercises, many Marine spouses have sent racy photos to their partners at some point. A Marine spouse observed, “This could have happened to any of us.” An active duty female Marine noted that “[victim-blaming] is part of the problem. People don’t send intimate pictures expecting to have them posted to thousands of people and to be degraded in extreme ways.”
For someone to share such a photo publicly is not only a breach of trust — it is illegal. Some female Marines were shocked that military spouses would blame the women in the photos, especially when pictures were taken without their knowledge. An active duty female Marine said, “We didn’t join so people could pass us around like pieces of meat or treat us worse than dirt.”
Echoing many Marine spouses, one said that “even if someone puts risqué photos out there, men making light of raping and sexually assaulting that person is absolutely inexcusable and not in good keeping with Marine Corps values.”
Another agreed: “People do hold Marines, or military members in general, to higher standards than the public because the Marine Corps specifically promotes this higher standard of integrity.”
In a Facebook discussion, many Marine spouses agreed that men sharing and commenting on the photos should be punished. One representative comment reads, “Anyone who exploits males or females without consent should be in trouble. I hope they lose rank and get kicked out.”
What do male military spouses say?
MOC interviewed male Marine spouses to get their perspective. These men are active-duty Marines and so are their wives. They all asked for anonymity based on the sensitivity of the matter and concern for their spouses professional standing. They all denounced the activities on the website.
One said the behavior is worst among infantry units that don’t yet have women integrated, so men see women as a threat: “If our senior leaders are honest with themselves, they’ll realize that this is a tactical problem that they cannot solve with safety stand downs and MarineNet training. This is disgusting behavior and has no place in an organization whose core values are in direct conflict with its historically complicit willful ignorance of the problem.”
Another went even further. He wrote, “I think this conduct is the antithesis of what it means to be a Marine. It has nothing to do with brotherhood and loyalty and everything to do with self-indulgent bullying. As Marines, we are supposed to stand up for what is right, protect the Marine to our right and left, and help those that cannot defend themselves … It is essential the leaders both enlisted and officer meet this head-on and demand better of their Marines.”
One male Marine spouse was furious that news outlets are covering the useful aspects of the Marines United page as a site that helps Marines struggling with depression or PTSD. “What they are missing is the trauma, grief, and potential suicides that are caused by sharing these photos,” he said.
While some people see this scandal as part of a larger problem in military culture, other spouses seem less surprised. These types of websites exist at many duty stations and even at colleges around the country. On other sites, women willingly post racy photos of themselves.
“There are entire Tumblers and Snapchats that are for shared nudes of female service members. It’s sickening, but some women actually submit photos!” one spouse complained.
The Marine Corps went through a similar scandal in 2013 over the Facebook page called “Just the Tip of the Spear.” Civilian sites like “Hot or Not?”, “Smash or Pass?” and “Nudes for Pizza” have existed for years. But the existence of such sites doesn’t mean that people should participate.
One Marine spouse summarized, “Don’t excuse their behavior just because they are Marines. ‘Boys will be boys’ is not okay and that’s what’s wrong with this country in the first place.” An active duty male Marine in a dual military marriage said, “I know for a fact that these crimes have been prosecuted in the past by the Marine Corps. I hope that commands will exercise due diligence in investigating and prosecuting any allegations that are brought to their attention.”
Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.