An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps
The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.
Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.
At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.
Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. “Hey, I want a blowjob,” the sergeant told her.
“What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?” she would later recall. “I’m 20 years old … I’m new at this. You’re the only leadership I’ve ever known, and this is what happens.”
She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. “I’m just fucking with you,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”
It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines
for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center’s report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.
The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon’s Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as “significantly higher” than their male counterparts.
But the center’s report, Marines’ Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.
The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.
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In early March 2017, the Marine Corps was facing a barrage of criticism after Thomas Brennan, a journalist and Marine Corps veteran, reported the existence
of Marines United, a private Facebook group where some 30,000 active-duty Marines and veterans had shared thousands of nude photographs of female Marines, and in some cases cyber-stalked them, revealing personal details and describing where the women worked and lived on base.
Hundreds of Marines came under investigation over ties to the group. More than 100 were eventually punished.
“Some days I don’t want to leave my house,” one female victim
told Marine Corps Times days after the story broke.
Lawmakers were furious. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in the immediate aftermath of the Marines United revelation, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) ripped into Gen. Robert Neller, then-commandant of the Marine Corps. “Who has been held accountable?” Gillibrand asked. “If we can’t crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber hacking throughout our military?”
“I don’t have a good answer for you,” Neller said. “That’s a lame answer, but ma’am, that’s the best I can tell you right now.”
Neller later released guidelines for how all Marines were to behave online, requiring them to sign a statement that they had read and understood the policy. The commandant also urged Marines to report cyberbullying to their chain of command.
Behind the scenes, the Corps’ Manpower and Reserve Affairs department asked researchers to conduct qualitative research aimed at gathering the “experiences and perspectives of Marines,” their report later explained.
While researchers focused on social cohesion, gender bias, and leadership — all factors that would likely shed light on how a scandal like Marines United could happen — they were careful to not pre-determine their research or restrict where discussions might go, allowing Marines to broach topics important to them in an effort to make the Corps better.
“While the Marines United misconduct media coverage was widespread and highly visible, the Marines who took part in this research expressed that the Marines United incidents and similar misconduct are symptoms of challenges that Marines face – some far less visible – rather than the challenge in and of themselves,” researchers wrote.
The study took months. Between August and October 2017, researchers traveled to Marine Corps bases in the United States and Japan, speaking with 267 active-duty male and female Marines of different ranks in a mix of semi-structured interviews and focus groups. Hoping to get a snapshot of Marine Corps life, researchers granted anonymity to the Marines interviewed, who were encouraged to speak freely.
The result was thousands of pages of transcripts compressed into a 102-page report. While other issues were mentioned, such as problems with promotions and leadership, the report provided example after example of female Marines being mistreated, with two perceptions that appeared to undergird the unequal standard they often endured: “Women are a nuisance or a danger” and “women make inadequate Marines.”
While discussing Marines United, according to the report, a male lieutenant colonel stationed in 29 Palms made clear the scandal was not an aberration but seemed an outgrowth of Marine culture itself.
“This is a virtual hog board,” the lieutenant colonel said, referring to the practice of Marines posting lewd photos of ex-wives and girlfriends on a barracks bulletin board. “I don’t know why we’re surprised.”
In fact, the existence of the Marines United group was not a bombshell to anyone who had been paying attention. Years before, in 2014, Task & Purpose reported on a different Facebook page that often denigrated female Marines as “wookies,” or in many cases, called them far worse.
“I was more surprised that it took so long for something like that to get highlighted because that’s been a problem like forever,” a female sergeant told researchers during an interview in Camp Butler, Japan. In Yuma, Arizona, a female captain echoed that view.
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Statistically, the Marine Corps has far less women in senior leadership positions than other military branches.
As a recent Congressional Research Service report noted, as of Aug. 2018, just 5.7% of Marine senior enlisted and 7.9% of officers were women. By comparison, female Army senior enlisted leaders and officers stand at 12% and 18.7%, respectively. The Air Force leads all other services in this regard, with 20.4% of women in its senior enlisted ranks; female officers, meanwhile, are 21.1% of its force. Overall, females represent only 8.9% of the Marine Corps, according to the most recent statistics, which often means women stand out and feel isolated among their male counterparts.
According to a 2015 Rand Corporation study, “groups more hostile to women experience lower cohesion after gender integration than do groups less hostile toward women.” In other words, whether male and female Marines work well together as a team largely hinges on whether men are willing to give integration a chance.
Additionally, hostility towards women appears to be on the rise in the ranks. The Pentagon’s Office of People Analytics found in 2018 there was a “substantial increase” in sexual assault against female Marines. And when asked about their unit’s overall climate and hostility in the workplace, the OPA report said, “Marine Corps women rated every aspect of the unit climate as significantly lower, and the level of hostility as significantly higher, than men.”
One female Marine officer was introduced to this climate upon checking into her first unit, according to the culture report, when her commanding officer lectured her on sex. “Well, you’re one of three females here,” she recalled him saying. “We had an incident with the last female that was here. So, I’m not going to have this issue where you come in here — where I’m going to need to sit down with you in the future about you sleeping with anybody, am I?” When the female officer went home later that day and told her husband about the conversation, he was shocked. “Holy shit,” said her husband, who was also a Marine. “That’s something we would never have to deal with.”
According to the report, for some Marines, resentment toward women begins at boot camp. Several participants, male and female, reported that their drill instructors warned them to stay away from members of the opposite sex.
Officer Candidates conduct close order drill at Marine Corps Officer Candidates School aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, August 7, 2019(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Phuchung Nguyen)
“They don’t even know why,” a female first sergeant said. “They just know somebody who they admire, their drill instructor, somebody who they aspire to be like, those individuals are telling them ‘stay away, don’t go near, bad-bad-bad.'” A different first sergeant spoke of her aggravation over an entrenched negative view of female Marines. Many women were warned by their drill instructors they would be labeled a slut, bitch, or a dyke, she said. “Why can’t I just be a professional? Why can’t I just be a professional just like you? You’re a Marine.”
“You gotta get over it,” one female lance corporal at 29 Palms recalled her drill instructor telling her and other recruits. “You gotta develop a thick skin.”
Notably, the Marine Corps remains the only military branch that still segregates male and female recruits during initial training, though that may soon change. Maj. Gen. William Mullen, who oversees the service’s training and education command,
signaled recently that he is open to integrating boot camp. In November, he commissioned a study of the issue, and expressed concern over “unacceptable” comments about women sometimes made by male drill instructors.
“The overriding concern for us as leaders is not what many people think,” Mullen said of recruit training in an email to Task & Purpose last month. “It is almost as if they assume we are trying to defend the last bastion of masculinity. Doing something like that is nonsense and the shortest path to irrelevance for the Marine Corps, which we are charged with ensuring never happens. What we want is for all of our young Marines to be set up for success and we believe that our model of recruit training does exactly that.”
Mullen added that he believed an independent study, carrying out an objective and unbiased look at how the Corps does its initial training compared to other services, would show that the current approach is right. “But if it indicates otherwise, we have to take another hard look,” he said.
According to the culture report, however, the Corps has a problem that goes far beyond boot camp. Female Marines, researchers said, believed they needed to work twice as hard to garner respect from men, some of whom automatically viewed them as inferior. “Several male Marines concurred with this perception,” the report said.
One Yuma-based female corporal, for example, told researchers she refused to ask male counterparts for help lifting heavy boxes out of fear it would make her look weak. Many others told similar stories. Another Marine, a female first sergeant in 29 Palms with at least a decade of service, explained that she had to prove herself to skeptical male colleagues throughout her career.
“I can be doing better than your most awful Marine,” the first sergeant said. “And I’ll still have to work harder. And I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that…” she said, pausing for a long time. “Women can’t do the job.”
A male master gunnery sergeant in Yuma agreed: “If you have a male Marine who’s below average or average at physical training and there’s a female Marine that’s the same level, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah look at that female Marine. She’s weak and can’t do this or can’t do that,’ but they wouldn’t say anything about the male Marine for the exact same circumstances.”
This double standard is often reinforced online, where comment sections at military publications, Task & Purpose included, can sometimes garner hundreds of disparaging comments on stories mentioning female Marines. In Nov. 2019, after Lance Cpl. Alexa Barth became the first female Marine ever to pass the grueling basic reconnaissance course, which fails up to 60% of those who attempt it, many congratulated her on the achievement. Some, however, questioned whether training was altered to help her pass (A Marine Corps official familiar with Barth’s accomplishment told Task & Purpose recon training remained the same).
Interestingly, female Marines themselves, some in leadership roles, harshly judge women coming to their unit before knowing anything about them, according to the culture report.
“I would say with females there’s a lot of negative stigma,” one female corporal explained during a focus group at Camp Butler in Okinawa, Japan. “For me, the way I see females is whenever we get a new female, all the other females are holding their breath like ‘Is she going to be a good Marine? Is she going to be lazy? Is she going to be good at PT? Is she going to make us look bad?'”
“More often than not you’re worried that they’re just going to make other females look bad,” the corporal added.
But as one major stationed in 29 Palms, California noted, the small number of women in the Marine Corps makes their individual mistakes stand out far more than their male colleagues. “There’s no fucking way that enough male Marines have interacted with enough female Marines for them to understand what it is they bring and how they’re not really that different,” the major said.
“Are there shitty females who are malingerers, who get pregnant to get out of deployments and who are barracks hoes or whatever? Yeah. Of course there are. Are there shitty dudes who are the equivalent? Yes, of course, there are. But because they are a smaller portion of the population, they are much more visible when they do screw up, and that’s part of the problem. If they were 40 50 percent of the population, I don’t even think we’d be having this conversation, or it’d be a different one.”
A master sergeant in Quantico, Virginia, whose spouse is a female Marine, put it this way: “Females in the Marine Corps do not have room for empathy. They don’t have time for it. No one was empathetic for them. No one gave a crap if the daycare opened at 6:00 and PT was at 6:00.”
“You figure it the hell out,” the master sergeant continued, imitating what female Marines would be told. “Suck it up, figure it out or get a nanny or you get somebody drop off the kid for you or something, but it’s not the Marine Corps’ fault. The Marine Corps didn’t issue you a kid, alright?'”
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The Corps didn’t change much in the years since that 20-year-old female lance corporal was a worried passenger in her sergeant’s car, heading down a dark path on an unfamiliar base.
Known only as Participant 216 in the culture report, she recalled an incident later in her career when she was a staff sergeant. At an alcohol-soaked unit outing, a drunken private first class repeatedly sexually harassed her, in full view of senior leaders. They did nothing at the time, she said, despite the male private being four ranks junior. The next day, when she tried to report it, her concerns were laughed off and dismissed by her chain of command.
“How many times do I have to tell you ‘no’ before it’s no longer … funny anymore?” she said during a focus group at Camp Pendleton, recalling intense frustration over the incident and its aftermath.
“I’m screaming at this kid, like ‘get the fuck away from me!’ And from a captain to a first sergeant to a staff sergeant to a sergeant to a corporal who are all in his chain in command, none of you guys say something to stand up for me? Were you really that oblivious or did it just not … affect you?”
Perhaps they were oblivious. But as the report noted, when senior leaders don’t speak out, junior Marines often mistakenly believe the behavior is acceptable. Silence, the saying goes, is consent. And therein lies the rub, as one first lieutenant at Camp Butler said: “Culture very much is a trickle-down thing.”
There were some examples of leaders fostering a positive environment for all Marines, male and female, the report noted, but “unfortunately,” the authors wrote, “many times this seems to not be happening, or worse, leaders appear complicit in the behavior.”
According to a Marine official, after the completion of the report, the Corps took steps to eliminate gender bias from hundreds of publications on Marine doctrine, added training on unconscious bias to its professional development curriculum, and consolidated new and old policy on harassment and other forms of abuse with its Prohibited Activities and Conduct Order, published in 2018.
“Starting in 2017, the Marine Corps reaffirmed and strengthened its commitment to maintain a culture of dignity, respect, and trust in which all members of the organization are afforded equal opportunity to achieve their full potential based solely upon individual merit, fitness, intellect, and ability,” said Maj. Craig Thomas, a spokesman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
In addition, Thomas noted the January 2013 Pentagon order that lifted the ban on women in combat, which opened jobs such as infantry, artillery, and combat engineer to women across the military. More than 600 female Marines and sailors are currently serving in previously-closed units, with 231 having earned a ground combat-related specialty.
“Female Marines are currently represented in all previously-restricted occupational fields,” Thomas said. “And the Marine Corps recently graduated the first female F-35 pilot and first female Reconnaissance Marine.” (The move to open these fields to women was opposed at the time by many top Marine leaders, including Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was then commandant).
A spokesman for Gen. David Berger, the current commandant of the Marine Corps, declined to say whether Berger had read the culture report.
It’s hard to tell whether the Marine Corps’ efforts have resulted in meaningful change for women serving in the smallest military branch, a conservative, insular culture often resistant to outside criticism. Earlier this year, a master sergeant was punished for social media comments blaming underage girls for statutory rape; similarly, a gunnery sergeant received unspecified administrative punishment after writing that men were “biologically designed” to be attracted to underage girls. Yet despite these abhorrent views, shared by men in positions of authority over both male and female Marines, these incidents show that, perhaps, the system is working. Both were held accountable.
Still, there’s reason to believe continued resistance to change remains at the top. Last month, some female service members noticed that the Marine Corps’ annual birthday celebration video, which highlights Marines past and present and offers motivational vignettes in celebration of the Corps’ founding in 1775, had just six seconds of footage of women in an eight-minute long video.
Although the Corps’ recruiting and marketing arm touted its successful outreach to potential female enlistees just this month, noting that it was “validated by research” that women respond more favorably to inclusion, in November Berger brushed aside criticism of the video. “We did not break it down frame-by-frame, how many males versus how many females,” the general told Military.com. “And I don’t plan to do that.”
Critics at the time argued that the Marine Corps likely didn’t make a conscious effort to exclude female Marines, but, as retired Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano told Task & Purpose, “there was no deliberate intent to include women.”
Still, Berger insisted that he wouldn’t direct a video to be made with a certain number of women in it, referring to that as “artificial elevation” of women.
“[That] means two different standards,” Berger said. “And we don’t do that in the Marine Corps. We have one standard.”
And yet, with hundreds of Marines candidly speaking about gender bias in the ranks, and a number of separate studies and surveys confirming it, one has to wonder: is that really true?
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly combined the number of female senior enlisted and officers in the Marine Corps. These figures have been separated to better reflect female representation in the Corps, which stands at 5.7% for senior enlisted, and 7.9% of officers.