Welcome to Rank and File, a series that tells the stories of young veterans and the changing face of the military. Read our intro to the series here.
I grew up wanting to serve in the U.S. military. I was lucky to have a family that never told me girls should do no such thing. So when I, as a 20-year-old, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 my parents just encouraged me to do my best. What they, and a lot of other veterans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me was what exactly I would find there.
It’s only been a year since then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter repealed the Combat Exclusion Act, ordering the mainstream training and deployment of women in combat roles like the infantry. This January, three women “made history” by reporting for duty as infantry Marines at Camp Lejune, North Carolina.
But just a few weeks later the Corps would learn of Marines United, a private Facebook group devoted to the posting of and commenting on nude photos of female Marines. More than 30,000 people were members of Marines United, more than the capacity of Madison Square Garden.
For many current or former female service members (myself included) the existence of such revenge-porn groups comes as no surprise. Already, according to CNN, other photo-sharing groups have sprung up in Marine United’s place, and since news of the scandal broke descriptions of toxic text-message chains and hard drives full of pornographic images have leaked to the public steadily.
The Marine Corps claims the actions of the men involved don’t reflect the values of the organization as a whole. On March 14 General Robert Neller, testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a particularly irate Kirsten Gillibrand, told the Democratic senator he just “didn’t have a good answer” when it came to how the Marines would be held accountable.
But the most likely next steps—conducting an investigation, punishing those involved, and updating the language in sexual harassment trainings—are part of a disciplinary system the military has relied on for decades. It’s what happened after 1991’s Tailhook scandal, in which female Navy and Marine Corps aviators were subjected to aggravated sexual assault during a strategy conference in Las Vegas. By the time I entered the Corps nearly a decade later, not much had changed.
Sexual assault, revenge porn, shame, the everyday subjugation of women through a thousand offhand comments: These are the effects of a culture still at war with us, and they occur in civilian life all the time. In the military I found an extreme and distilled version of these structures, and I and the women I served with were groomed to internalize it.
The basic message in the Corps was that it was a man’s organization, just like it’s a man’s world, so it was time to adapt and overcome. To complain was to be weak, to be weak was to be incapable, to be incapable was a risk to the safety of your fellow Marines, regardless of the limits of your actual physical strength. Reporting sexist behavior was to be a “buddy fucker” and screw over your friends. (There’s no worse sin in the Marines.) We convinced ourselves it was just talk—and who would listen to our complaints anyway? Senior enlisted leadership tended to prefer mediation to conflict, which didn’t require formal documentation and paperwork.
So women, myself included, stayed quiet. We’d laugh and play along to prove we didn’t give a shit. We were told to “suck it up, be a Marine.” We were told that “boys will be boys.”
And in many cases, that advice came from fellow female Marines. Women were made complicit in our own abuse, because to speak up would make us more obvious targets. It would reinforce the beliefs that undermined us in the first place. It would push us farther to the outside than we already were.
In boot camp, my platoon of all-female recruits was given multiple lessons on fraternization and working with men. Those lessons were predominantly geared towards helping us avoid incriminating situations—much like young women entering college are encouraged not to drink too much, to dress modestly, and to travel in groups, rather than expect young men not to assault them.
In one case, we were told that male Marines would come rushing out of the barracks to help us with our gear in an attempt to be gentleman-like. We were told not to trust it: They were only trying to get in our pants. “You can look like you fell from the ugly tree, and hit every branch on the way down, but male Marines will still want to bang you,” one female drill sergeant told us, “because you’re the only female around.”
Her insistence that we’d always be treated as sexual objects turned out to be right: Men would score women when they first arrived at a unit, in an on-base version of “kill, bang, marry.” “Looks don’t matter when the lights go out,” one Marine would say to another when a young private deemed too ugly checked into the barracks. The sharing of nude photos without consent is just an expanded version of this dehumanizing culture, widened across the service until no woman, no matter how far away, is off-limits. It’s a logic that could only be incubated in a universe that until fairly recently was not only dominated but exclusively comprised of men.
Until 1918, there were no women in Marine Corps except wives and daughters. It took the entrance of the U.S. into the first World War to open service in the Marine Corps to women, and even then we were confined to Stateside, non-combat roles. In those early years, the interaction of men and women was so rare that in most cases a male Marine could go his entire career without seeing a female in uniform.
As a former Sergeant in the Marine Corps recently wrote, that divide still runs deep: in boot camp, young male recruits rarely encounter women or see them train. The Marines have the lowest percentage of women across the service. Even today people are surprised to hear I’m a veteran of the Corps.
The problem with asking women to conform to this culture is that it becomes an excuse to avoid the hard work. In the year since women have been integrated into all areas of the service, we’re seeing how much proactive change we need, from the top down—and it’s not just about punishing individual instances of abuse.
In part, it’s having that infrastructure to handle acute events of sexual harassment and assault. In part it’s about educating all service members on how to recognize and police sexist behavior. And we need more women at the forefront of advertising and in recruitment commercials, in ceremonies and leadership positions.
But in such a hierarchical organization it’s also about leadership: Small unit leaders are the backbone of the Marine Corps, the first in line to mentor young Marines. If male leaders consistently behaved positively towards their female counterparts—and if women weren’t encouraged to “just put up” with anything that comes their way—maybe a shift could begin. Perhaps as an older generation of leaders (“salty dogs,” as they’re known in the Corps) retire, entrenched sexist beliefs may fade. But we can’t wait for that.
I was mentally unprepared for what I saw in the military and the treatment I received. There was no recourse; I sucked it up and I kept quiet. My silence didn’t help change the culture, and now a new generation of woman are going through the same thing. If we don’t find another way there will always be scandals like Marines United, and sexism in the service will remain a “women’s issue,” further proof that we are too soft to serve.
Mariette Kalinowski is a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps who served from 2002 to 2010, including two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She is currently the Student Veteran Services Coordinator at The New School.