In early March 2017, during my daily morning news reading routine, I saw stories about a Facebook group dedicated to sharing photos of Marine Corps women. The private all-male group, called Marines United, posted and shared naked and private photos of Marine Corps women without their knowledge and consent.
The Marine Corps opened an inquiry into the behavior and publicly condemned the group, saying “[t]he Marine Corps does not condone this sort of behavior, which undermines its core values.” However, since the initial story broke, subsequent articles have revealed that the practice of sharing nude photos of female service members wasn’t isolated to Facebook and extended into other social media platforms, namely Snapchat. News stories have debated if the group’s behavior is indicative of a broader problem regarding the position of women in the Corps.
The Marine Corps resistance to integrating women into their ranks has been well-documented and the military as a whole has had a history of problems with high rates of sexual assault and violence. While not dismissing the military as a unique institution beset with a troubling track record in dealing with gender and sexual harassment, to focus on the formation of an online group of men dedicated to sharing photos of women as a solely military issue is to discount the parallel practices of photo sharing in other digital spaces as a broader issue of masculinity.
As a feminist media studies scholar whose research interests focus on gender and sexuality in both the military and in digital cultures, when I read about the Marines United scandal it told an all-too familiar story. In an article on digital cultures and the college party scene, Caitlyn Kawamura and I found that college men post photos of women without their consent as part of what we call digital sex talk. Drawing on work by sociologist CJ Pascoe, digital sex talk is a way men display the ability to control women’s bodies and assert their own heterosexuality by sharing women’s photos without their knowledge or consent on social media. Digital sex talk in the college party scene often took the form of photos of women accompanied by sexist comments. Many of these photos displayed naked, or mostly naked women, seemingly taken without their consent and knowledge. While it might be easy to write off digital sex talk as a reflection of the college party scene or a unique result of the relative anonymity afforded by some social media platforms, the news about Marines United reveals how digital sex talk has become a broader practice of masculinity.
The formation of an online group like Marines United is an expression of digital sex talk; it is a way men trade in assertions of heterosexuality through the exploitation of images of women. In an article published a month after initial reports of the Marines United group, it was reported that male Marines labelled photos of female Marines shared on Facebook with captions like “Smash or pass?” Non-consensually shared photos of women in the digital college party scene also used the term “smash,” a slang term for having sex. This term reveals a culture where women and their bodies are seen as available for assertions of men’s heterosexuality without discussions of consent. The similarity between expressions of digital sex talk in the military and college culture reveal the pervasiveness of misogyny and the ways digital technologies and social media are being deployed to enable and bolster sexual harassment and violations of women’s consent.
Marines United demonstrates how many male Marines see women in the Corps as a resource for expressing heterosexuality and maintains the Marine Corps as a cultural space defined by straight masculinity. In my research on military recruiting and gender, I’ve found that the military has long espoused an image of manliness, defined through ideas about toughness and combat as well as through ideas of straightness. For every recruiting ad telling recruits that the Marine Corps is “looking for a few good men”, there are recruiting ads showing service members as straight men with girlfriends, wives, and proud, straight parents. Assertions of heterosexuality have been represented as absolutely integral to the culture of military masculinity and perhaps even more so in the Marine Corps, a branch generally regarded as the toughest and most manly branch in the Armed Forces.
The Marines United scandal shows how ideals of heterosexuality and manliness in military culture converge with practices of asserting masculinity through digital sex talk and reflect an environment where women can be included, but are not treated as equals. But the environment that led to Marines United is not solely a military environment or a digital one—it is the broader gendered environment of which we are all a part.
As noted by sociologist Jane Ward, gendered and sexualized practices of straight men don’t emerge as isolated in particular institutions like the military, but rather circulate in broader ways across and between institutions. While it is important to address particular histories and policies that enable and excuse sexual assault in the military, we need to see the military as an influential institution that helps define, and is defined by, understandings of American masculinity.
As masculinities scholar R.W. Connell contends, “no arena has been more important for the definition of hegemonic masculinity in European/American culture” than the military. The sense of déjà vu I felt when first reading about Marines United might be a reflection of my time spent researching the military and digital cultures, but it might be more accurate think of it as a reflection of the ways masculinity and its accompanying practices—both online and offline—are part of pervasive issues of sexism, heterosexism, and patriarchy.