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  • Kristen Zaleski, PhD, LCS

Revenge Porn in the US Military

In 2017, a new kind of sexual violation appeared in the United States military known as “revenge porn.” In March 2017, the Marines United Facebook page had as many as 30,000 followers and contained naked images of military service members, predominantly female. A United States Marines press release in 2018 stated they had found over 130,000 images across 168 different online sites and platforms, and were investigating 89 people in connection with these crimes. Of those 89 suspects, 67 were active duty or reserve Marines. This scandal led to a publicly televised Congressional hearing on March 14, 2017 where military leaders committed to “cultural change”—a promise often heard in Congressional hearings. Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) told military leaders how the victimization begins online, but continues into bullying and “face to face” victimization as well. She stated:

“We have countless victims who have come forward and they are not just being harassed online, once their name, face, where they are stationed is posted, do you think the harassment ends online? It does not. I spoke to a civilian the other day who continues to be harassed in her own community, because her boyfriend harassed her online.”

In March 2018, a Dropbox was reported to have more than 250 explicit photos of non-consenting service members. Clearly, the cultural shift of change had not occurred.

This begs the question—What exactly is being done and how will we know when it gets better? The answer is we must be asking service members about their rates of victimization, and find out how prominent it is within the US military. Fortunately, the Department of Defense has begun to collect data within a DOD report on harassment. However, it seems to be treated as a separate issue of service incidence, and is not being described or reported within DOD reports as a form of sexual violence. This lack of connection to sexual victimization has consequences and needs to be changed.

“Revenge porn” is the most common term that describes the online sexual victimization that takes many forms besides a hostile ex-partner who is trying to humiliate, and often profit, from intimate photos that they have of someone else. Image based sexual abuse (also referred to as non-consensual pornography, a form of technology facilitated sexual violence) is a growing problem in which nude photos taken by peeping toms, nursing home staff, cyber hackers, and, perhaps the most well-known, vengeful ex-partners, make headlines. Civilian research, like a recent study from Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 1 in 12 Americans are victims of image based sexual abuse. What is more startling is that 1 in 20 Americans appear to be perpetrators of sexual abuse. Further, women of color and LGBTQ of all genders report higher incidence of victimization.

In the past decade, pioneering researchers have identified image-based sexual abuse as part of a continuum of sexual violence, and domestic violence researchers have begun to add image-based abuse to the characteristics of domestic violence. Human trafficking is also using this form of sexual violence for profit. The recent Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Violence in the Military report shows an increase in “some kind of contact or sexual assault” (did not include digital violence) up by 10% with 1 in 5 of those reporting their assault to be a result of retaliatory behavior (revenge). Further, 25% of service women and 6% of service men indicate they have been the victim of sexual harassment. Given that we know image based sexual abuse is part of retaliation (revenge), bullying, harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence, we should include this act of victimization within our own DOD sexual victimization research report each year. However, it appears that the DOD is not collecting it as part of their overall report of sexual victimization. Is that because the DOD does not see it as a form of sexual assault?

The DOD is making shifts to address the problem of image-based abuse within the ranks. As with any cultural shift, cultural norms and laws must be enacted to begin a dialogue about change. According to Cyber Civil Rights Initiative research, a deterrent for perpetrators is the threat of legal prosecution and jail time. Article 117a of the USMJ now lists “wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate visual images” as a crime. Though this law is not perfect, as there are many cases that would not meet criteria of how this crime is defined, it is an excellent first step in enacting cultural change within the military.

A second step would be to begin an education program, which appears to also be in the works. The recent DOD 2018 report highlights a new training within the Marine Corps on retaliatory behaviors on social media. Further, a February 2018 DOD memo on the Harassment Prevention and Response office mandated the addition of social media practices to be documented. The documentation must include instances of harassment, bullying, and hazing to be assessed for and reported. Education within the military is an effective advocacy tool, particularly in bystander prevention of technological violence online. This is an important step, but needs to be labeled as sexual violence, not solely harassment or hazing.

Definitions matter, especially in the US Military. Currently, survivors of military sexual trauma (commonly face-to-face harassment and sexual violations) are entitled to free psychotherapy at Veteran Administration (VA) affiliated treatment centers regardless of discharge status. This is an excellent service that the DOD provides for survivors of sexual assault during service time. What is less clear is if victims of revenge porn and other forms of technological facilitated sexual violence also receive free counseling?

Framing revenge porn as sexual violence is important to increase funding on prevention and identifying the consequences of an event. As Senator Gillibrand stated in her statement quoted earlier in the article, online abuse has lasting consequences. There are many instances of victims being laid off from jobs, losing relationships, being humiliated in their family and communities, as well as suffering long term mental health repercussions. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative shows that victims of revenge porn show significantly lower levels of physical and mental health after being victimized. In recent months, my time has been spent collecting interviews of revenge porn survivors and we are finding that victims who have never had a sexual trauma in other forms are reporting the same PTSD symptoms that survivors of “face-to-face” sexual trauma show. One can only wonder how the effects of humiliation and revenge take hold in a military unit where a victim’s naked images are exposed and ridiculed online. What kind of lasting effects can that have on a person’s moral and commitment to service?

There is more education, research, and clinical advocacy needed on image-based sexual abuse in the United States military. One of the easiest steps towards lasting change is having the DOD annual report of sexual violence in the military include technological forms of sexual violence included in its definition within its overall report. As long as the military excludes technological forms of sexual violence as a separate issue from “face-to-face” acts of sexual violence, it is not making steps towards lasting cultural change. Further, the DOD has an opportunity to lead the way towards research and innovation in the ever-growing online landscape where an increasing number of sexual predators enact sexual violence.

Originally published by Sound Off- the newsletter for Center for Law and Military Policy in August 2019, found here: https://centerforlaw.org/sound-off/f/lets-start-talking-about-revenge-porn-in-the-us-military

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