September 09, 2020

Confronting Digital Misogyny: Why the Military’s #MeToo Moment Must Tackle Cyberharassment

By Margaret Seymour and Cailin Crockett

“In an organization that prides itself in cohesiveness and ‘leaves no soldier behind,’ we are failing.” With this direct critique, Representative Jackie Speier opened the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the “The Military’s #MeToo Moment” on July 29, 2020—an effort to acknowledge the complexities surrounding the death of Private First Class Vanessa Guillén—and laid bare the toxic sexism endured by women in our armed forces. Shortly following news of Guillén’s death in late June, #IamVanessaGuillen and #JusticeforVanessaGuillen quickly went viral on Twitter, becoming catalysts for active-duty and veteran women to share their own stories of gendered harassment, abuse, and violence while serving their nation. Guillén’s murder and the stories of women sharing #IamVanessaGuillen are sobering reminders that the military’s impunity for harassment, assault, and abuse of women service members is a feature, not a bug, of a centuries-old institution that continues to be dominated by predominantly white men.

This problem is emblematic of a wider failure of the Department of Defense and military services to progress from an organization in many ways defined by its mistreatment of women and “boys will be boys” culture. This failure to evolve, as others have rightly noted, will only serve to exacerbate the struggle to bring badly needed new recruits to the force, undermine the safety and security of those who do enlist, and continue to result in critical retention challenges for our military. An honest and thorough examination of the true cost of this pushout requires DoD to shine a spotlight on the pervasiveness of gender discrimination, in all of its forms, across the total force. As Congress and the public call on DoD to meaningfully reckon with the military’s endemic misogyny, Pentagon officials and military commanders must update their responses to reflect 21st-century norms. This requires a multi-layered strategy to tackle the fluid continuum of harm enabled by technology, in which “traditional” offline harassment is proliferated online. Often, this abuse takes place not instead of, but rather alongside, sexual harassment, assault, and the gendered microaggressions women in the force too often receive from their male colleagues (and must routinely brush off) in person.

Pentagon officials and military commanders must update their responses to reflect 21st-century norms.

Cyberharassment and cyberbullying against women, as well as LGBT service members and others who don’t fit the white, cis-het, hypermasculine male archetype, must be confronted head on. This is not simply the moral and ethical decision—it is also a critical component of a strong national security. Online degradation of servicewomen—by fellow service members entrusted to protect each other—hurts readiness and lethality by undermining unit cohesion and disrupting the talent pipeline of women in the force. Further, service members who engage in this serial predatory behavior pose a potential insider threat, as rampant cyberharassment of women is tied to the radicalization of young men and linked to violent extremism, a connection that some Air Force intel analysts have acknowledged.

Marines United Scandal

Cyberharassment, including nonconsensual pornography, was most clearly recognized as a military problem in 2017 with the scandalous revelation of Marines United—a 30,000-member-strong Facebook group of Marines that circulated thousands of nude images of female service members, ex-girlfriends, and wives, without their knowledge or consent. These nonconsensual images were accompanied by comments threatening rape and other acts of violence, and there is strong reason to suspect that some of these abuses did manifest in real life. DoD’s own surveys show that cyberharassment and sexual assault tend to coexist, and it is not uncommon for threats that are made online to later be followed (if not preceded) by physical violence and in-person harassment. In fact, last year’s DoD annual sexual assault report indicated that women who experienced sexual harassment were at three times greater risk for sexual assault than average. And while men experience sexual violence at proportionally lower rates than women, male service members who experienced sexual harassment were at 12 times greater risk for sexual assault than average.

In 2016, another Pentagon survey asked service members about their experiences with cyberharassment in the context of sexual assault—and revealed that one-third of victims felt they had been the target of professional reprisal or retaliation online through Facebook, Twitter, Yik Yak, and/or Snapchat. This and other metrics of unit climate reveal a subculture of gendered harassment and abuse so vast that many servicewomen have become inoculated to the problem, choosing to grit their teeth and bear it rather than accept the very real professional risks associated with speaking out. Only one in three victims of military sexual assault, for example, ever makes a report. For too many victims, the cost of reporting and coming across as a “troublemaker” is an extension of the original harm.

Combating the Continuum of Gender Harassment

It is easy to see why technology-facilitated abuse remains a DoD-wide problem: the overwhelming proportion of currently enlisted and new recruits (60 percent of the total force) is younger than 30 years old. These service members are more acculturated to technology as a fundamental part of their social lives than any generation before them. Unsurprisingly, this is the same age cohort of women shown to be most targeted by nonconsensual pornography in the general population; in the military, this age bracket of women and men is at highest risk of experiencing or perpetrating sexual assault. Because this problem is both chronic and acute, it requires a two-pronged solution with both immediate and long-term, sustained lines of effort: (1) a horizontal, peer-led approach that promotes bystander engagement to shift social norms against discriminatory attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors against women and LGBT service members across the total force; and (2) an uncompromising rejection of the military’s subculture of misogyny by leadership at every rank, led by the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and implemented through policies that properly give incentives to officers to hold themselves and their units accountable.

It is easy to see why technology-facilitated abuse remains a DoD-wide problem: the overwhelming proportion of currently enlisted and new recruits (60 percent of the total force) is younger than 30 years old.

The success of a grassroots cultural approach to ending gendered abuse requires enlisted buy-in. The armed forces are roughly 82 percent enlisted and 18 percent commissioned officers. Of the enlisted population, 52 percent are junior enlisted, meaning between E-1 and E-4. These demographics demand that influential peers step up to promote attitudinal and behavior change. It also requires that senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and enlisted leaders assume the responsibility of ushering in and modeling transformative change. Too often, the concept of “military leaders” is conflated with that of “officers,” when the bulk of face-to-face leadership and mentorship for junior enlisted personnel comes not from commissioned officers but from the NCOs and SNCO leaders in their unit. Furthermore, those junior enlisted members will eventually become the NCOs and SNCOs charged with this task, meaning the lessons they learn now will be reinforced in five to 10 years. The return on investment for this approach is exponential.

Given the unique nature of life-work overlap in the military, such change is possible if there is a will to make it. The overwhelming majority of junior enlisted military members, and to an extent more senior service members, spend their off-duty time with peers in their units or branch of service. There is clear evidence for the influence of peer networks on cultural norms and behavior to reduce or prevent sexual violence, and this rung of the social ecology is especially significant in the military. Junior officers and staff NCOs can initiate a more inclusive, safe, and dignified climate for women and others who “don’t fit the mold” in their units, but they must be persistent in their language and actions to model respect and nonviolence. These junior leaders must actively intervene when they hear members of their unit use sexist language, as well as when they observe online activities that demean, degrade, or defame women and LGBT service members. For example, the Marine Corps has issued social media guidance that unambiguously states that sexist, racist, homophobic, and other harmful or threatening comments on platforms are incompatible with “good order and discipline” and “bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, [and] the Marine Corps.” Senior leaders must be clear and unwavering in their directives to mid-grade leaders. In turn, junior officers and SNCOs must immediately execute their directive with commitment and consistency, ensuring that this shift in norms permeates junior enlisted circles. Furthermore, this guidance and its execution must happen in real time, not after months or years of deliberation and study.

Servicewomen who share experiences of men in their unit calling out peers for using sexist language, or for engaging in explicitly misogynistic behaviors, attest to feeling safer, more respected, and closer with their units. When enough male service members heed the call to leave no soldier behind in this way, organizational norms toward gender equity can be achieved. One of the most notable examples of this intercession can be found in the contributions of male service members in reporting and dismantling the Marines United Facebook group Women and LGBT service members, as the populations most affected and harmed by this subculture, should not and cannot carry the burden to change it—especially in an institution such as the military that is by nature hierarchical and male dominated. This is the cultural part of the solution.

Additional problems arise from the lingering idea of women as “guests” in the “men’s gun club”—a notion that has shown remarkable if not repugnant endurance, even among the comparatively few women who do manage to rise in the ranks. Just recently, a retired female Air Force colonel made public remarks arguing that sexual harassment was the “price of admission” for women wanting to join “the good ole boy club.” Similarly, in the authors’ personal experience, while on deployment, a fellow officer had her photo taken without consent and then disseminated with a sexually explicit caption to a number of her male peers, senior officers, and subordinates. This harassment was initiated by a fellow servicewoman. Clearly, cyberharassment (and gender discrimination writ large) is not just a simple issue of male-perpetrated harms against women, but rather a complex outgrowth of deeply rooted attitudes against women seeking to occupy spaces where they “don’t belong.” Confronting internalized misogyny is another necessary facet of grassroots and grass-tops culture change.

A grassroots, bottom-up cultural approach to transformation is necessary but insufficient. The military is a rules-based organization, and top-down leadership is fundamental in shaping organizational norms, adapting culture, and establishing accountability. The influence of command is powerful, and it must be leveraged in support of victims of abuse and harassment—regardless of how talented or “promising” the offender may be. DoD must prioritize inculcating zero tolerance for misogynistic attitudes and behaviors, starting early with professional military education well before officers become commanders, educating the pipeline of future senior leaders (a population that is still too white and too male). It is up to leaders of all ranks in the enterprise to eradicate the subculture of misogyny that manifests on- and offline. Messaging from the top matters. For example, in the wake of Marines United, then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis responded swiftly and emphatically, called the actions of military personnel on social media “egregious violations of the fundamental values we uphold at the Department of Defense,” and stated that “lack of respect for the dignity and humanity” of fellow service members will not be excused or tolerated. Unfortunately, these words, unbacked by sufficient changes in policy, did little to instigate cultural change. Words, while meaningful, are no more than platitudes without explicit guidance and demands for accountability—not only in the short term, but also through a long-term prevention strategy.

Missed Opportunities

The loss of PFC Vanessa Guillén should be a catalyst for the secretary of defense and the secretaries of the military services and branches. Whereas the current defense secretary, Mark Esper, rightly noted in an appearance before Congress that Guillén’s death, and the “underlying issue of sexual harassment,” is a “stain on the profession,” Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s response, though heartfelt, fell short. Invoking his own daughter in a show of empathy, he hinted at a societal problem recently underscored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: men’s caring about women by proxy of their personal relationships is a poor substitute for simply recognizing women’s full humanity. So long as this view persists, particularly among the highest-ranking leaders, women in the force will continue to be held back. It reinforces stereotypes of women’s helplessness and the need for men to protect and save them—attitudes that coincide with beliefs that women’s presence in the force is anomalous or deviant.

Unfortunately, action from the top has not inspired confidence. Although the Pentagon has rightly taken steps to meet the moment of increasing awareness of structural racism (e.g., through unambiguous policies such as Secretary Esper’s memo on racial discrimination and bias, and the Marine Corps policy against the Confederate flag), these actions lack a decidedly intersectional lens. Service members who are women, LGBT, from communities of color, or belong to more than one systematically oppressed community could have been explicitly recognized and supported with the right messaging to accompany these steps. That the Pentagon chose not to do so is particularly disappointing given that PFC Guillén’s family, friends, and attorney have shared that her discriminatory experiences at Fort Hood were based on both race and gender.

Ultimately, it is ineffective and inefficient to attack these deeply rooted, intersectional problems piecemeal—whether that means failing to acknowledge the fluidity of abuse between behaviors and views expressed both in person and online, or taking steps to confront racial bias without also addressing gender. Marines United was a wake-up call, but clearly an insufficient jolt to action; three years after the revelation, the problem of cyberharassment and sexual violence persists in the military. Emphasizing the unacceptability of cyberharassment would decisively address the persistence of sexist attitudes and male entitlement that stifle women everywhere in which they attempt to take up space. The military has grown to recognize this reality through its recent integration of social media policies in strategies to root out retaliation and its long-needed focus on revising service-level policies to be gender-informed; still, the ever-evolving threat of technology-facilitated abuse on the strength of the force requires concerted attention and resources.

It is ineffective and inefficient to attack these deeply rooted, intersectional problems piecemeal.

Although it should never fall to victims to lead the impetus for change, advocacy based on experience is a powerful force for increased accountability and justice. Women veterans and their male allies have organized such movements as Vets for the People and Not in My Marine Corps around this very issue—and should be consulted for policy and cultural changes in the future. Their work and expertise should be the backbone for major policy change—but the responsibility for transformative change and accountability lie with military leaders, the Commander in Chief, and Congress. Calls for “Not one more” may seem to be aiming for unachievable goals, but for an organization such as DoD, which prides itself on accomplishing the impossible, ending gendered harassment and violence against service members must be an immediate mission of the highest priority.

*Victims of nonconsensual pornography may contact the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative hotline at 844-878-2274; members of the military may contact this group, started by one of the women impacted by Marines United: https://www.notinmymarinecorps.org/.

Cailin Crockett has worked to improve U.S. government policies for survivors of gender-based violence for the past eight years, with roles in the White House, Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. She is a Truman National Security Fellow, and a Bloomberg American Health Initiative Fellow. She holds a Masters in Politics from the University of Oxford, and is based in Washington, D.C.

Maggie Seymour served ten years as an active duty Marine Corps Officer where she deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. She holds a Masters in Military History from Norwich and a PhD in International Studies from Old Dominion University. She lives in Beaufort, South Carolina where she works as a researcher and writer.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.

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