Why Haven’t the Marines Shown Stronger Support for Women?

By: Shelly Burgoyne: this Blog appeared in the New York Times: “At War” Blog

As an Army officer, I worked with Marines in Iraq and was always impressed by their professionalism, combat readiness and physical strength. But recently, I learned some things about the Marine Corps that shocked and saddened me to my core.

It started when I read an article about Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, writing a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, after discovering Facebook pages devoted to promoting sexual violence against female Marines.

Ms. Speier named the Facebook sites in question and provided some of the vile images from them in her letter. The images included a female Marine with a black eye that read, “She Burned the Bacon…Only Once.” A naked woman tied up and gagged with a caption that read, “She Left the Kitchen Only Once.” And a female Marine placing a male Marine in a headlock that read, “This is My Rape Face.” I went straight to the sites in question, and what I found was shocking. On this virtual and violent platform, with 20,000 “likes,” Marines and former Marines referred to female Marines as “wooks” and “WMs” (Walking Mattresses), took offensive photos of them without their permission and threatened to gang rape or beat them if they reported the site.

There are about 203,000 Marines serving our nation, and approximately 13,000 of them are women — about 6.4 percent, the lowest percentage of any of the armed services. Still, 13,000 Marines is a lot of souls.

Those numbers did not shock me. But this one did: 6. That was the number of Facebook pages in existence, as of last May, devoted to promoting sexual violence, rape and degradation of female Marines. These pages were run by anonymous administrators and had more than 50,000 Marines who “liked” and followed their posts. Shockingly, the Marine Corps knew about these sites for three years, according to Ms. Speier’s office.

Through pressure from her and thousands of other men and women, Facebook took down these three sites in May. Those men and women managed to do in two weeks what the Marine Corps could not, or did not have any interest in doing, for three years. In retaliation, one of the sites used its last virtual breaths to publish a meme with a photo of Ms. Speier with a black eye. Hundreds of Marines “liked” the post.

On May 9, the commandant sent a letter to all Marines saying:

“As you implement our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Campaign, there are a couple of things that I want you to keep in mind. Sexual assault is a problem. It’s a reality in our society and thus it’s a reality in our Corps. Statistics reflect that alcohol is a contributing factor to the majority of our sexual assaults, and something that we must address in our overall plan.”

While I have no doubt that the commandant has a genuine interest in ridding the plague of sexual assault from the corps, sexual assault may be a larger “problem” in the Marine Corps, as well as in the other services, than for civilian society. According to the most recent Pentagon report on sexual assault, about 26,000 service members reported having had unwanted “sexual contact” in 2012 — about a 30 percent increase from 2010. So the “problem” should be categorized as criminal activity, an epidemic, a health crisis, a tragedy. It is not illegal for a Marine to get drunk, it is illegal for one to rape or sexually assault someone.

The Marine Corps is one of the finest organizations the world has ever known, and it has led the way for the other services in terms of professionalism and discipline. It aggressively integrated African-Americans into its ranks, long before American society. It has not, even in the face of constant pressure, relaxed its physical standards in training. And its officers and non-commissioned officers are some of the most educated in the force. So why has it been unable to address the issue of maltreatment of women in the ranks with equal aggression?

This week, there were reports that some Marines were under investigation by the United States Capitol Police for threats against Ms. Speier, and that some Marines may face nonjudicial punishment for posting lewd remarks on social media sites.

But I wonder if the Marine Corps is doing enough. (Requests for response from the Marine Corps’ public affairs office at the Pentagon were not returned.) If Marines visited and commented favorably on virtual platforms devoted to demeaning and inflicting violence on black Marines, the corps would almost certainly respond forcefully. It simply would not allow black Marines to be publicly demeaned and threatened. So why has it been slow to do the same when it comes to attacks on some of the 13,000 women within its ranks?

Shelly Burgoyne-Goode was commissioned an Army officer after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2002. She deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a platoon leader leading supply convoys and again in 2004 as a convoy commander and tactical operations officer involved in helping direct battlefield movements, communications and medical evacuations. After leaving the Army in 2006, she was named a Tillman military scholar and received her master’s degree in public policy from the University of Maryland. She lives in San Antonio.

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