Protect Our Defenders News Blog


POD Executive Director Testifies at Congressional Hearing, Calls for Reform to Address Online Abuse of Female Servicemembers

Miranda Petersen, Executive Director of Protect Our Defenders, testified at a Congressional hearing hosted by the Democratic Working Women’s Group to address the ongoing issue of nonconsensual pornography within the United States military. This issue has been most recently highlighted by the Marines United case, but it has long existed in all branches of our armed forces, including in the Marine Corps in 2013.

Below are Miranda’s full remarks from the hearing:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today about the urgent need to address online misogyny, harassment and sexual abuse of women serving in the military.

Protect Our Defenders was founded in response to the ongoing crisis of rape and sexual assault in the military, and we have worked in partnership with survivors to advocate for critical reforms to improve the military’s response to these crimes.

The use of online sites to harass and humiliate female service members may pose unique challenges to military leadership and law enforcement, but the underlying sentiments being expressed by the men on sites like Marines United are nothing new. These pages are simply a modern manifestation of a longstanding culture within the military that sexualizes and denigrates female service members under the guise of camaraderie and tradition. This toxic culture has been tacitly condoned and allowed to persist by military leaders who have consistently ignored evidence of this behavior and have opposed reforms to improve the climate at almost every turn.

In 2013, the Marine Corps was put on notice of several Facebook sites where Marines were circulating violent and misogynistic images and jokes about sexual assault, including images of women naked, bound and gagged, and comments over pictures of female Marines such as “this is my rape face” and suggesting they performed sexual favors to obtain promotions. The silence of military leadership in the face of these reports, and the abject failure of commanders to confront the toxic attitudes expressed on those pages, has emboldened abusers and perpetuated the hostile climate that too many service women face. In the backdrop of this climate the military continues to struggle with a crisis of rape and sexual assault, with the Marine Corps experiencing the highest rates of sexual violence within their ranks.

Protect Our Defenders has heard directly from service women and civilians whose private nude pictures were taken and distributed by male service members without their consent. In addition to feelings of shame and betrayal, they spoke of the ways in which these incidents undermined their ability to perform their duties and inflicted lasting trauma. These women’s dignity and privacy were violated and yet their commanders did nothing to prevent further harm or hold the perpetrators accountable. It is shameful that women who want nothing but to serve their country are forced to endure such humiliation in silence and are afforded so little recourse.

While there is much the Marine Corps can and must do to address the toxic climate that leads to this sort of conduct, obstacles do exist to holding perpetrators accountable under the law. Article 120c of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) prohibits knowingly “broadcasting or distributing” images of a person’s private area, where the images were taken without the subject’s consent. However, the nonconsensual distribution of private sexual images originally taken with the subject’s knowledge or consent currently falls outside the scope of Article 120c.

We urge Congress to support proposed reforms to explicitly criminalize the nonconsensual distribution of pornography under Article 120. Article 120 should be amended to prohibit the nonconsensual distribution of private sexual images where the person sharing the images knows or reasonably should know that the subject has not consented to their distribution. Codifying this behavior under the UCMJ as a form of sexual abuse acknowledges the sexual nature of the crime and would also help to ensure that women who are targeted in this manner have access to the resources and options afforded other victims of sexual abuse – for instance, access to an emergency transfer.

Women serving our country deserve nothing less than a safe, respectful work environment, free from sexual harassment and abuse.