The network of nude-photo sharing exposed in a secret Facebook group run by some U.S. Marines was just one layer of a much larger trend of revenge porn and cyberharassment in the military. Last week, Business Insider learned from a source that members of all branches of the military have been posting hundreds of nude, unauthorized-for-sharing photos of female service members on a site called AnonIB since at least May of 2016. A Navy Times investigation published Tuesday revealed that 4Chan and Tumblr also host archives of nude photos. Some of the photos were posted in response to requests made for photos of specific women.
In all these groups of service members, users could ask for “wins”—naked photos—targeting specific women stationed anywhere in the world, and other users would try to track them down, sometimes through ex-lovers. Many archives, including the Google Drive folders linked to from the Marines United, the all-male Facebook group that was first exposed, get regularly shut down and moved to keep the images available and to protect the orchestrators.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to address the widespread exploitation of women under his command. His responses to senators’ questions—“we have addressed the fact with all Marines that all Marines are Marines,” he said—were met with skepticism from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom have been advocates for a tougher response to sexual assault in the military.
“This committee has heard these kinds of statements before,” Shaheen said. “It’s hard to believe something is really going to be done.” Gillibrand was practically shaking with fury when she took on the commandant, noting that women in the military have come forward with allegations of online abuse since at least 2013. “When you say to us ‘it’s got to be different,' that rings hollow,” she said. “If we can't crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber-hacking throughout our military? It is a serious problem when we have members of our military denigrating female Marines who will give their life for this country in the way they have with no response from leadership. I can tell you, your answers today are unsatisfactory.”
Neller encouraged more female targets of online abuse to come forward, claiming that it may be hard to prosecute some perpetrators because of free-speech and privacy protections. So-called “revenge porn”—sexual images shared confidentially with a partner who in turn posts them online or shares them with others—is only restricted in 34 states and Washington, D.C. Some legislators have suggested making the practice explicitly illegal under military code, which does not currently address it. Currently, only people who took or posted nude photos that were taken without the consent or awareness of the subject could be prosecuted on felony charges for “indecent viewing, visual recording or broadcasting,” a crime under military law punishable by up to seven years in prison. Those who posted photos originally taken with the subject’s consent or by the victims themselves may find themselves in the middle of a loophole created by this provision, which doesn’t seem to address consensual photos shared without consent.
Putting the onus on victims of the network of exploitation to go public or notify military higher-ups is a troubling response to this far-reaching problem. Survivors of military sexual assault often face backlash from colleagues, obstacles to advancement, and blacklisting in a hierarchical, 93 percent male military branch that is built to give perpetrators the overwhelming benefit of the doubt. But if it makes Neller feel any better, several female service members and veterans have spoken out in recent days. Marine veteran Teresa Fazio wrote in Rolling Stone about the military’s encouragement of hypermasculine posturing and everyday sexualization of women. Misogyny is so entrenched in the culture of the Marines, Fazio wrote, some members were taught by officers to grab their weapons like they’d grab a date’s breasts—quickly, before she could push him away:
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. … 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.
Marine Lance Cpl. Marisa Woytek told the Washington Post that photos were taken from her Instagram account without her consent and posted in the military members’ secret archives, some of which had tens of thousands of members. There, service members commented on the photos with messages that suggested she should be sexually assaulted. She said other victims were rightly scared to come forward and anger the thousands of members of the groups, some of whom have sent death threats to the man who first published a piece on Marines United. Being victimized by the group “ruined the Marine Corps for me,” she said, vowing to never reenlist.
According to reporting from the Marine Corps Times, members have defended the Marines United group as a way to prevent suicide and help troops recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. Reddit user MUActual, who claimed to be a group administrator, posted the group’s policy on nude photos last year. He wrote that “explicit” content is allowed, and if members would like to share nude photos of their exes or significant others, they should ask for permission from the women first. Still, “under the fair use policy and laws regarding the ownership of digital media, [members] are not required to do so,” the administrator added. “At worst,” he went on, the photos are “juvenile, but exactly what you would expect from the kind of men who have experienced what less than one tenth of one percent of the population has experienced.”
“We do not wish to make any further efforts to censor our members,” MUActual wrote. “After all, a Marine with a clean sense of humor is a lonely Marine.”