Each of the Armed Services has passed down guidance intended to set expectations for dealing with the kind of despicable behavior brought to light in the Marines United Facebook group scandal.
But if history is any indication, it’s hard to be convinced it will change a single thing. Regulations already in place should make eliminating this kind of behavior from the ranks easy and yet here we are.
Or should I say, here we are again.
Sadly, the deep-rooted culture of denigrating and disrespecting women who serve hasn’t changed much since women first answered the call to arms.
A History of Public Humiliation
In 1943 a “slander campaign” sought to undermine the value and service of the Women’s Army Auxillary Corp. It whispered of pregnancy issues and venereal diseases. The campaign impacted recruitment efforts at a time when women’s service was greatly needed. Investigators initially thought the campaign was a form of enemy propaganda, but in the end, it was the actions of high-ranking military officers who believed women had no place in the military.
Fast forward 50 years and the weekend-long Tailhook Naval Conference left 87 women and 7 men sexually assaulted. After an initial cover-up, it took a single victim’s willingness to sacrifice her career and take her story to the press to get the Navy to stop making excuses and start taking action.
Female service members have been fighting to protect our country while secretly fighting to protect themselves from a “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk” culture for almost 80 years.
The first service regulations that specifically targeted sexual harassment in the military weren’t even introduced until 1980, nearly 4 decades after women had become fully integrated into the U.S. military.
A Culture of Statistics
In 2014, a survey of female veterans from the Vietnam era to present showed that as many as a quarter of military women have been sexually assaulted and 80% sexually harassed. Another report in 2011 offered this staggering statistic:
“Women in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than they are to be killed in combat.”
Ironically, when women report such crimes and demand the respect they’ve rightfully earned, it is used as an excuse to call them weak and accuse them of distracting their unit from its mission. A 2014 DoD survey found that in the previous year alone, “62% of active service members who reported sexual assault had experienced retaliation, including professional, social and administrative actions or punishments.”
This is the culture female service members face. It is a culture that continues to tell them that their service and their sacrifice is somehow less. That their personal safety isn’t found in trusting the soldier to their right and left, but instead must be found in tolerating illegal and immoral behaviors and staying quiet. It is a culture that demands they give their all and punishes them when their male counterparts decide they don’t like the competition.
Top-Down Change Won’t Work
Regulations and laws currently in place allow for the prosecution of service members involved in the latest scandal, who undoubtedly understood that their behavior was illegal and reprehensible and hence kept it secret and hidden from public view.
Some found safety in their fake-account anonymity; others in the sheer number of other group members who engaged in the same behavior. Sure, the group and the folder full of stolen images have disappeared, but investigators believe the group and its content will congregate and materialize under a new name on a new site. And while there are a few examples of service members suffering the consequences of such actions, there is a staggeringly number of cases where the behavior is dismissed or ignored.
I wish I felt that this renewed awareness would change things. That somehow those who still believe that “hotties don’t belong in the military” would hear the words of their leadership and change.
But the truth is, they haven’t listened in the last 40 years and I doubt they will start now.
This kind of change can’t come from the top down. It must be a grassroots effort within the military community.
The Facebook group in question was 30,000 members strong and it’s unlikely that these members’ attitudes about female service members weren’t apparent to those who knew them in real life. How many of them have been called out, not just by their chain of command, but by their fellow service members or veterans?
If you look at a service member and see gender before the uniform, you’re part of the problem.
If you think the women who were victimized in this case were responsible in any way for what happened to them, you are part of the problem.
If you hear the jokes and innuendo and laugh or ignore it, you are part of the problem.
But if you are willing to call it out, if you are willing to start changing the way you think about this issues, you can be part of the solution.
The question is, will you?