This week, news broke that men in the Marine Corps used online forums to swap thousands of photos of nude female service members without the women’s knowledge or consent. As the scandal radiates outward to other branches of the military, it now appears that the grey market for nude photos of servicewomen could be an epidemic-level problem in the military.
To the public, a story of this magnitude—one photo-sharing forum called Marines United boasted 30,000 members—is shocking. To many women who have recently served in the American armed forces, it’s anything but.
“This scandal doesn’t surprise me at all,” retired Marine Corps Sergeant Tanya Sciorilli tells The Daily Beast. She adds that she’d heard rumors that Google Drive had been circulating for nearly a year, and that people had been working to have it taken down and reported. “It also doesn’t surprise me that no legal action was taken until the information was given to the general public,” she adds. “It seems like they’re trying to save face. A day late and a dollar short.”
The photo-sharing rings, uncovered by Reveal, Business Insider, and the BBC, now involve tens of thousands of soldiers across multiple branches of the military. Participants in the rings would post clothed photos of women, often lifted from their social media accounts, and request more provocative ones from members of the forum that may have had intimate contact with them. A nude photo was called a “win.” One woman in Business Insider’s account tried unsuccessfully to shake her harassers by changing the privacy settings of her social media.
“Can’t lie, it’s no surprise,” an Army vet we’re calling Jenny tells The Daily Beast. What’s happening now is simply the next step in the evolution of a practice that’s been widespread among service members she’s known in recent years.
During Jenny’s time on active duty, she says she witnessed similar behavior from fellow soldiers, only instead of organizing their photo sharing on internet forums, they’d pass along nudes via group texts. Or they’d simply show other soldiers their cache of private photos directly from their computers. She recalls walking into rooms to find soldiers gathered around a computer watching videos of sexual encounters, sometimes of group sex, sometimes videos that seemed to be filmed without the awareness of the film’s female subjects. Some of the women were fellow service members, Jenny says, but others were not. Supervisors, she says, would be aware of the non-consensual photo and video-sharing but turn a blind eye to avoid stirring up trouble.
“In some situations, different groups on a post would have a rating system and compare notes on potential fucks,” Jenny says. “Rating on looks, how easy to fuck. Does she play games? Possible downfalls like: Does she work directly for a powerful person who could affect your career? Is she married?”
Jenny says some servicewomen willingly shared their photos with the expectation that they’d be passed around. But many did not. “The sad part is the ones who really like someone and don’t realize that a whole group of men are reading everything she texts to a dude and or looking at her photos. Kinda like having a relationship with a whole unit.”
A Navy veteran we’re calling Leah says that there was an expectation that sexy photos would be shared. It’s baked into her understanding of how communication works in the modern American military. “From personal experience, and this definitely doesn’t need to be specifically related to me, but back in the day if you were going to do stupid shit like [share nude photos], you made sure your head wasn’t in the pic, so it couldn’t come back and bite you,” she says.
None of the women who spoke to The Daily Beast blamed the women for what happened, but they did note that because the practice of sharing images with other men was so common, they’d avoided sending intimate photos themselves. Amanda Burrill, another Navy veteran, adds, “It’s abhorrent, but women need to not make nude photos available to these animals. This probably happens at every single command.”
“I would never send a pic to a dude,” says Jenny. “ A dude can use it as backlash or blackmail if you don’t keep him happy.”
Capt. Justine Elena, a Marine who served in Afghanistan and is currently serving in the reserves, says “just don’t take nudes” isn’t as simple a prescription to this problem as it may seem. Service members who are deployed are often separated from their boyfriends and girlfriends for long periods of time, and swap photos as a way to maintain a feeling of intimacy. Further, among women in the service, sometimes part of fitting in means being complacent or silent when you see your male colleagues carry out behaviors you feel are wrong, like sharing photos or using explicit or harmful language toward another female servicemember.
“It’s like being a little sister,” Elena says. “You want to hang out with your big brother and all of his friends. You can’t forget who you are, but you want so badly to be in line with them on a social level. You know you have what it takes to be a Marine. But do you have what it takes to hang?”
It’s not like the problem begins and ends with photo sharing. Truth is, it’s not much of a logical leap to tie the cesspool of Marines United and similar message boards to other problems the American military has faced in recent years. Even after a troubling 2011 report found that women in the military were more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than killed in combat, even after another report found that 80 percent of women in the military experienced sexual harassment, even after all the Senate panels and photo ops and tribunals and very serious discussions about the seriousness of this very serious issue, it seems some male members of the military still aren’t taking sexual harassment seriously.
“I remember being called in and showed some porn and someone asked me if it was me!” recalls Amanda Burrill. “I was on an all-male ship. It was very uncomfortable. I mean, it got much worse than that!”
Burrill says she was kissed against her will, and that unwanted sexual advances were common. She used to run on the ship’s old treadmill every day. (That was the best way to avoid unwanted approaches.) Once, her fellow sailors broke into her room and ejaculated all over her belongings, including her running shoes.
In some professions, say, accounting or sales or journalism, fostering loyalty among team members serves to make work more fun or at least tolerable. But in the military, nurturing a sense of community among members of a unit can be a matter of life and death.
One might think, given the importance of solidarity, that the military would want to expel troublemakers. But, as many female service members know all too well, whistleblowers often receive most of the ire.
A female soldier we’re calling Jenny tells The Daily Beast that after she was raped by another soldier in her unit, she was told that if she reported the crime, she’d be charged with underage drinking. Prior to the assault, she’d been drinking alcohol supplied to her by her commanding officer.
“Women who actually file a complaint then become troublemakers and not someone you want to associate with,” says Jenny. “In many cases their career is pretty much over.”
“I can’t even count the number of times I was sexually harassed,” Sciorilli adds. She says she was sexually assaulted more than once during her time in the service and had her concerns dismissed.
“A few months ago I went to lunch with two other veteran female Marines,” she says. “During lunch, we got to talking and it turns out that all three of us had been victims of sexual assault.”
While sexual assault and sharing a photo without permission aren’t equally dire, they’re both symptoms of something deeper and sicker. After everything the military has tried to do to integrate them, female soldiers are still treated more as fodder for male bonding than human beings.
Elena, like the other female service members and vets who spoke to The Daily Beast, was so disturbed by the photo-swapping scandal and its relation to other problems in military culture that she decided to take action. She started a GoFundMe called Female Marines United. The campaign’s proceeds will go to HeadStrong, an organization that provides free mental health care to veterans of post-9/11 wars. So far, she’s raised a little over $5,500.
“Bottom line on it is, I want women to know that there is more people out there who stand by them than people who do these kind of behaviors online.
“We are not in the wrong because these photos exist,” she adds. “They are in the wrong because this is how they’re using them.”
But even a firestorm of public outrage and bad press can’t keep dogged male Marines from swapping nudes. According to CNN, replacement groups for Marines United have already sprung up in its place.