At first glance, it seems sweet: Young Marines in a barracks watching Disney’s blockbuster film, Frozen. Snuggled together on a couch, rippled shoulders touching, they bounce along, loudly singing the film’s hit song “Let It Go.” But then, as the song reaches its climax, the Marines explode. Arms go up in triumph, the bouncing turns to bucking, and the song’s final notes are overpowered by the aggressive sounds of the Marine Corps’ trademark war cry: “Ooh-rah!”
Once the video was posted online, it immediately went viral. Viewers cheered on the “Adorable!” Marines in their moment of “true emotional liberation.” But they had missed the point entirely. Emotional liberation is not what’s going on in the video. It’s the sexy cartoon princess that has the Marines so worked up.
That most of the Marines’ millions of online admirers confused lust with a love of sing-alongs is a comic misunderstanding. But the confusion points to more serious problems with how our society thinks about both sex and soldiering. It reveals just how unaware most Americans are of how their military prepares young people to do violence in defense of the nation.
The context of “Let It Go” is this: Elsa, the heroine of Frozen, is able to turn anything to ice with the touch of her hand. Forced to hide her powers, even from her sister, she keeps her skin covered and lives in isolation. The day she is crowned queen and attempts to come out into the open, Elsa loses control of her emotions and the gloves come off—literally. As ice shoots from her fingers, her kingdom turns to perpetual winter and she flees to the mountains, angry and afraid, but determined to cast off her fears and live without shame. This is the moment the Marines are watching—the moment Elsa decides to revel in her powers and to free herself from others’ judgments. She coaxes an ice castle up from the ground, throws off her crown, and becomes the Snow Queen.
Parents, kids, and little girls in particular, all seem to love “Let It Go,” probably because it paints women as powerful agents who articulate their feelings—even the negative ones. And while those negative feelings have some pretty frightening consequences (indeed, Elsa almost kills her sister more than once), in true Disney fashion, by the end, she learns that love can thaw a frozen heart and all ends well.
That’s not the message most of the Marines in this clip are hearing, however. They are more focused on the visuals, because in the process of singing “Let It Go,” Elsa transforms herself from a scared, tightly-wound little girl into a sassy, sexy woman. The braids come out, the hair comes down, the hips get some swing, and in place of a neck-high, ankle-length dress, Disney’s animators have the queen slip into something more comfortable: a flowing and gauzy-thin dressing gown with a slit that rises to her thigh.
This is the moment that causes these young Marines to explode: the moment Elsa becomes a sexual object. It is therefore not surprising that the sounds they make at Elsa’s transformation are the same ones heard in strip clubs or when Marines watch pornography in a group. What these warriors are celebrating here is sex, or more accurately, their collective sense of Marine virility as they turn a cartoon princess into a sex object for the group. (Obviously, the lines “Let it go, let it go/Can’t hold back anymore” mean something very different in this context.)
Of course, moments like this one aren’t unusual in the military. Soldiers will argue for hours over which celebrity is sexier even when that celebrity is a cartoon. In my early years in the Marines, the hottest debate concerned Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Ariel from The Little Mermaid. (I voted for Jessica Rabbit.) Most young men always have sex on the brain, and those in an all-male group are likely to be more confrontational and aggressive in all ways—sexual and otherwise—when competing for authority with their peers.
This fact of military life seems willfully ignored by most of civilian society. As a people, we Americans have always been more comfortable with violence than with sex—particularly when the violence is perpetuated overseas—but the most uncomfortable fact is this: There are chemical connections between violence and sex, among humans and almost every other mammal species. Ask a biologist. The hormonal fuel for both impulses is the same: testosterone.
Americans need a more realistic understanding of how its military channels animal impulses toward the social good of national defense. Professional military organizations succeed on the battlefield precisely because they teach soldiers how to convert hormonal fuel into aggression and to operate within limits. But what happens to those hormones when soldiers are off-duty? Sports and exercise aren’t a sufficient solution, particularly since exercise elevates testosterone. Ignoring the problem is no good either. One look at the Catholic Church’s struggles should confirm that “Don’t Let it Go” is not a sustainable strategy for coping with sexual appetites.
Base demographics make the problem worse. The Marine Corps is 93 percent male. In Jacksonville, North Carolina, which houses one of the Corps’ largest bases, males comprise 70 percent of those aged 15-24. On ships, and on overseas bases like Okinawa, the options are even more limited. Fraternization rules limit the options further. In the service academies, even future officers cannot have overnight guests in their rooms, which leads them to sneak off base to have sex in cars. The result is a military force that is highly adept at violence but which lacks the social infrastructure to have shame-free sex and normal, healthy relationships. As a result, far too many young soldiers get stuck where Elsa is at the beginning of the film: emotionally frozen.
None of these issues are being discussed in American society with attention to their complexities. Instead Congress and the media prefer to reduce it all to one simple, irresponsible soundbyte: the “epidemic” of military sexual assault.
There is a problem with sexual assault in the military, much as there is on most college campuses. In 2013, there were 5,061 reports of sexual assault, an increase of almost 50 percent over the previous year. In an active-duty force of 1.1 million, this equals a reported assault rate of 3.8 per 1,000 service members.
But allegations are not assaults. Indeed, in 2013, only 1,569 cases—one-third of the total—had sufficient evidence to warrant some form of criminal or administrative action. If we take seriously the principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, we should use the rate of those punished or convicted: 1.4 per 1,000. Is this an epidemic? It depends on whether there is more or less sexual assault than in civilian society. And that is impossible to know, because the military has a unique definition of sexual assault that stretches the term beyond all usefulness.
The Department of Defense defines sexual assault as “intentional sexual contact characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent.” This sounds reasonable enough, until one tries to define sexual contact or consent. I’ve sat through court proceedings as lawyers have argued that consensual sex between inebriated adults constituted rape. Annual sexual assault lectures caution Marines to avoid any women in bars who have had anything to drink. No one—not even our trained sexual assault counselors—can provide a common-sense definition of sexual contact except to say that it is “contact that the recipient perceives as sexual.” All of this makes even the most well-meaning junior soldier more confused and more uptight.
If we take the military’s definitions literally, there is even a sexual assault in the Frozen video. Right after watching Elsa’s climactic transformation, while the group is still reveling in the afterglow, the Marine on the far left of the couch leans in and attempts to kiss, or bite, or jokingly nuzzle the Marine on his right. Was this an attempt at wrongful sexual contact? The nuzzlee’s reaction—a quick withdrawal and a brief look—suggests that it was, but calling this an assault empties the term of all meaning. What about the two Marines whose hands move closer and closer together on the couch, fingers extended, almost touching? Had one reached out and caressed the other, would that have been an assault? Using the military’s own definitions, the best answer is “maybe,” depending on a variety of factors that are impossible to know or prove.
A definition that lumps these things together with rape does little to decrease sexual assaults anywhere—in military, on college campuses, or in bars and homes across the nation. And, it makes soldiers more likely to disregard the entire sexual assault prevention program because the instructions they are getting make no sense at all.
It’s time to have an adult conversation about sex and violence in the military. Doing so would force confrontation of two hard truths.
First, testosterone is the critical ingredient of molding young people into violent instruments, and while there are ample tools for directing soldiers’ impulses on the battlefield, barracks life and base demographics give young people few opportunities for healthy adult sexual relationships. Disregarding the sexual components of violence ignores biology and forces soldiers into the impossible-to-wear armor of the mythic warrior-priest.
The second truth is that we do not yet have useful comparative data on military sexual assaults and yet, Congress and media pundits demand solutions to a problem they can neither quantify nor accurately define. (Much of this has been fueled by still another bad data point: the assertion that there were 26,000 cases of “unwanted sexual contact” in the military in 2012—an unconscionable claim that both conflates unwanted contact with assault and relies on data that no statistician would accept as credible.) Recently, when the military announced it was changing its definitions to better capture actual crimes, politicians and pundits cried foul, claiming the military was trying to disguise the problem. Those criticisms are unfair.
Military life is not a Disney film, but neither is it X-rated. And yet, the national conversation on sex and violence seems stuck between these two extremes—presenting troops as either fairy tale heroes or out-of-control predators. Let’s elevate the dialogue. The best films—for adults anyway—are usually R-rated. They contain mature themes and require measured, evidence-based arguments. Surely there’s a way to have that conversation concerning the biological elements of violence and military service.