The failure to adequately address rampant sexual assault within the Marine Corps has weakened and reduced the capability of the service for decades. The military already sees more cases of documented sexual assault per capita than the civilian world, but the Marine Corps sees the most, which implies grave problems within its justice system and culture.1 Despite the former Commandant of the Marine Corps’ claim that “there is no room in the Marine Corps” for sexual assault and harassment, it would appear that there is more room for it in the Marine Corps than just about anywhere else.2 After years of scandals and scrutiny, these problems are still deeply embedded in an assault-friendly culture. A holistic approach to combat sexual assault is necessary to treat this issue, but innovative and immediate solutions are needed too. A root cause could be addressed with a bold new prevention strategy: recruit better Marines.
A Long-Standing Problem
In 1991, a female Navy lieutenant reported being sexually assaulted at the Navy’s Tailhook Symposium. A wider investigation revealed another 83 women and 7 men were assaulted as well, revealing an atmosphere that “not only engages in such lewdness but even condones it as nothing extraordinary.”3 The scandal changed little. Fifteen years later, women serving in the military were more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy.4
To compound this, in nearly half of the 2,212 reported sexual assault cases in 2007, the chain of command took no action at all.5 Then-Congresswoman Jane Harman wrote that the “absence of rigorous prosecution perpetuates a culture tolerant of sexual assault—an attitude that says ‘boys will be boys.’”6 She also spoke directly to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the issue, but despite his concern, the “military’s response has been underwhelming—and the apparent lack of urgency is inexcusable.”7
Ten years later, a Facebook group was discovered with as many as 30,000 Marines in membership, who posted explicit photographs to humiliate their female colleagues. Though the group was shut down, the members rebranded, creating new pages which “promise[d] to better weed out anyone looking to blow the whistle on the group’s depraved behavior.”8 This is a direct product of “significant cultural problems within the Marine Corps and a failure of leadership at the highest levels.”9
In the civilian world, one in six women experiences sexual assault in their lifetime. In the military, assault is almost twice as frequent, and the Marine Corps is as bad as it gets.11 In fact, female Marines are almost three times as likely to be victims than their Air Force counterparts.12
Fraternity is an ingrained part of military training that builds esprit de corps at the cost of creating “rape prone cultures.”13 This ethos is emboldened in the Marine Corps, which has struggled more than other branches to integrate women, creating a space with less equal opportunity and more toxic behavior. According to Commander Rosemary Mariner, the Navy’s first female aviation squadron commanding officer, “If the institution says you’re not good enough to fight or doesn’t want you to, it’s natural for people to think you’re inferior.”14
This reluctance to let women into all roles in the Marine Corps adds to a culture that “revel[s]” in its “rough and tumble” spirit that creates a “context for sexual assault, rape, and physical violence of both men and women.”15 Misogyny and sentiments of superiority to female counterparts, increased sexual aggression motivated by “underlying anger [and] power,” and a workplace environment entrenched with power dynamics and a penchant for the “carnal things in life,” make the Marine Corps a pressure cooker for sexual assault.16
Women are, of course, not the only victims. In 2006, when four Marines testified in court against the Marine who had assaulted them (all men), the judge discredited their testimonies.17 Even after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a report found that “male victims’ unwillingness to report stems from stigmas surrounding perceived threats to masculinity and sexuality, and reluctance among male service members to identify as a victim.”18
Starting at Recruitment
The Marine Corps cannot be at its strongest if its own members are assaulting each other. This “military-on-military sexual violence . . . disrupts operations, harms personnel, and undermines recruiting.”19 Assaults “degrade military readiness” by virtue of reduced performance among victims as well as “decreased cohesion and stability” within units.20 Of servicewomen who have experienced sexual assault, almost a third contemplate suicide.21 However, the public seems to view sexual violence in the military as “something that just happens.”22 This begs the question: Are recruits who would otherwise make honorable Marines being discouraged from enlisting because of this perception?23
For many Americans, the military offers a reliable path to economic security. For some, this escape from financial insecurity is synonymous with one from troubled homes, where violent attitudes against women might be commonplace. Theoretically, training would be helpful, but a “growing body of research indicates that some men who hold hostile attitudes towards women may endorse increased sexual aggression after exposure to anti-violence messaging.”24 There are even some members who might be more inclined to be violent after the training, implying it may be causing more harm than good.
If the Marine Corps is recruiting people more likely to commit abuse in the future, then reducing assault is bound to be an uphill battle. The proof is in the pudding: Between 2016 and 2018, the Department of Defense (DoD) found an almost 50 percent increase in reported unwanted sexual encounters at service academies.25 Though increased cases can sometimes be suggestive of an improved reporting culture, it still confirms the worst fears of what has been lurking beneath the surface, left unreported for years. Military-wide, unwanted sexual encounters were up 38 percent, and the DoD’s FY20 Annual Report on Sexual Assault found that these numbers are only getting worse.26 When sexual assault has “festered through the ranks of the armed forces with military leaders repeatedly promising reform and then failing to live up to those promises,” the numbers communicate misaligned priorities.27
Embracing New Strategies
If leaders are truly prioritizing solving this problem, then perhaps they are failing because they keep using the same old strategies. In July 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released a memo that stated: “solving this problem requires . . . significant and enduring changes to our approach to prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support.”28 What if preventative measures were taken farther upstream to keep out those most likely to commit sexual assault or condone it? Prevention of sexual assault is often discussed separately from treatment of a toxic culture, but a paradigm shift could allow both to improve simultaneously. Since training is not effectively preventing sexual assault, it may be worth thinking about prevention in terms of who is being recruited.
The Marine Corps should drastically evolve how it markets itself. Pop culture and the media has portrayed the military as “a hyper-masculine organization where rape myths and rape culture are acceptable.”29 Even if this ethos is a matter of media presentation, it is possible that recruits are joining an institution they expect will be “soft on rape.” Changes within a culture are not made overnight, but the Marine Corps could start by creating a media campaign that portrays the military as an organization where rape culture is unacceptable and work to recruit those committed to upholding this mentality.
Given that so many join the military to escape troubled or violent homes, the Marine Corps could be marketed as a place to escape abuse because its culture does not tolerate it. These types of messages not only advocate for a new type of heroism desperately needed in the Marine Corps, but also can inspire a new wave of recruits who share these principles.
There are numerous ways to ensure those who join are of the strongest moral character. When recruiters bring applicants in for their initial interview, they should ask them questions like, “What are your thoughts about consent? What about bystander intervention?” During boot camp, drill instructors should ask, “What would you say to a friend who made a degrading comment toward another woman in your platoon?” Bad eggs will ideally be weeded out sooner, as any eye-rolling at sexual assault that occurs before graduating will get them pulled out.
In public health terms, the Marine Corps would be shifting its prevention techniques from secondary and tertiary to primary levels.30 This technique is working on college campuses, where studies reveal that “greater exposure to prevention messages prior to coming to college was significantly associated with greater bystander intentions and behavior.”31 It is worth seeing if the military could achieve similar results.
The Marine Corps desperately needs to address the darker aspects of its culture to reach its full potential. All recommendations for improved training, reporting processes, victim advocacy, and justice must still be implemented. It is a supplementary—and novel—suggestion to think of prevention as keeping toxic masculinity and aggressive rape culture out of the Marines in the first place. The Marine Corps is a symbol of freedom and liberation from tyranny, a force whose members pride themselves as protectors. If the Marine Corps wants to maximize itself against future security threats, it must first protect those that serve within its ranks.
1. Patricia Kime, “Despite Efforts, Sexual Assaults up Nearly 40 Percent in U.S. Military,” Military.com, 2 May 2019.
2. Maj Craig Thomas, USMC, “Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military,” United States Marine Corps News (Headquarters Marine Corps, 2 May 2019).
3. John Lancaster, “Tailhook Probe Implicates 140 Officers,” The Washington Post, 24 April 1993; Ellen Goodman, “Revolting Behavior . . .” The Washington Post, 29 April 1993; and Eric Schmitt, “Wall of Silence Impedes Inquiry into a Rowdy Navy Convention,” The New York Times, 14 June 1992.
4. Megan Chuchmach, “Female Soldiers More Likely to Be Raped than Killed in Action, Says Rep.,” ABC News, 9 September 2008.
5. HON Jane Harman and HON Mike Turner, “Stopping Rape in Military Must Be a Priority,” The Hill, 4 February 2016.
6. Jane Harman, “Rapists in the Ranks,” Los Angeles Times, 31 March 2008.
7. Harman, “Rapists in the Ranks.”
8. Eliott C. McLaughlin and AnneClaire Stapleton, “Secret Marines Group Is Still Sharing Nude Photos amid Scandal,” CNN, 9 March 2017.
9. Faiz Shakir, “ACLU Statement on U.S. Marine Corps Photo-Sharing Scandal,” American Civil Liberties Union, 15 March 2017; and Zachary Cohen and Ryan Browne, “Marines Issue New Social Media Guidelines after Nude Photo Scandal,” CNN, 15 March 2017.
10. Jeff Schogol, “‘I Don’t Want to Leave My House’: Victims Haunted by Marines’ Nude Photo Scandal,” Marine Corps Times, 6 March 2017.
11. Helen Benedict, “Why Soldiers Rape,” In These Times, 13 August 2008; and Melinda Wenner Moyer, “‘A Poison in the System’: The Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault,” The New York Times, 3 August 2021.
12. Brendan McGarry, “Study: Female Marines, Sailors at Higher Risk of Sexual Assault,” Military.com, 31 October 2017; Kime, “Despite Efforts, Sexual Assaults up,”; and Benedict, “Why Soldiers Rape,” In These Times.
13. Ben Wadham, “Violence in the Military and Relations Among Men: Military Masculinities and ‘Rape Prone Cultures,’” The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military, January 2017, 241–56; and Patricia Yancey Martin and Robert A. Hummer, “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” Gender and Society 3, no. 4 (1989): 457–73.
14. Schmitt, “Wall of Silence Impedes Inquiry into a Rowdy Navy Convention.”
15. Lolita Baldor, “Officials: Marine Commandant Recommends Women Be Banned from Some Combat Jobs,” Marine Corps Times, 18 September 2015; Dave Philipps, “Inquiry Opens into How a Network of Marines Shared Illicit Images of Female Peers,” The New York Times, 7 March 2017; and Wadham, “Violence in the Military and Relations Among Men.’”
16. Kathryn E. Gallagher and Dominic J. Parrott, “What Accounts for Men’s Hostile Attitudes toward Women? The Influence of Hegemonic Male Role Norms and Masculine Gender Role Stress,” Violence Against Women 17, no. 5 (2011): 568–83; David Lisak and Susan Roth, “Motivational Factors in Nonincarcerated Sexually Aggressive Men,” American Psychological Association (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988); and Philipps, “Inquiry Opens into How a Network of Marines.”
17. Justin Rose, “I Was Sexually Assaulted by Another Marine. The Corps Didn’t Believe Me,” The New York Times, 7 September 2018.
18. Lisa Davis and Ashlea Klahr, “2019 Military Service Gender Relations Focus Groups,” media.defense.gov (Office of People Analytics, April 2020).
19. Elizabeth L. Hillman, “Front and Center: Sexual Violence in U.S. Military Law,” Politics & Society 37, no. 1 (1 March 2009): 101–29.
20. Joie D. Acosta, Matthew Chinman, and Amy L. Shearer, “Countering Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military,” RAND Corporation, 19 July 2021.
21. Rebecca K. Blais and Lindsey L. Monteith, “Suicide Ideation in Female Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma: The Trauma Source Matters,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 49, no. 3 (2018): 643–52; and Moyer, “‘A Poison in the System.’”
22. Steven Kuhl et al., “Masculinity, Organizational Culture, Media Framing and Sexual Violence in the Military,” Social Sciences 7, no. 5 (2018): 80.
23. LtCol Peter Lee, USAF, “This Man’s Military: Masculine Culture’s Role in Sexual Violence,” Media.Defense.gov (Air University Press, August 2016).
24. Neil M. Malamuth, Mark Huppin, and Daniel Linz, “Sexual Assault Interventions May Be Doing More Harm than Good,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 41 (2018): 20–24.
25. Leo Shane, “Arizona Senator Reveals She Was Raped by a Superior Officer.”
26. Department of Defense, “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military FY18,” SAPR.mil., 9 April 2019; and Department of Defense, “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military FY20,” SAPR.mil, 15 March 2021.
27. Moyer, “‘A Poison in the System.’”
28. HON Lloyd J. Austin, “DoD Actions and Implementation Guidance to Address Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the Military,” Media.Defense.gov (Department of Defense, 2 July 2021).
29. Kuhl et al., “Masculinity, Organizational Culture, Media Framing.”
30. Susan V. Iverson and Michelle N. Issadore, “Going Upstream: Policy as Sexual Violence Prevention and Response,” New Directions for Student Services 2018, no. 161 (2018): 59–69.
31. Sarah McMahon and Rita C. Seabrook, “Impact of Exposure to Sexual Violence Prevention Messages on Students’ Bystander Behavior,” Health Promotion Practice 20, no. 5 (2018): 711–20.