Revenge Porn Military Case Could Affect More Than Just Marines

It was April 2014 when *Susan first caught her husband, a United States Marine, videotaping her while she was in the shower. He had his hand hooked over the top of the door and was filming her in this intimate state of undress. Just a few weeks later, he stuck his phone - with the camera feature on - under her dress as she was buckling her son into the car after leaving a local pool.

Susan confronted him and insisted he move back into the barracks. In the weeks that followed, her husband subjected her to threats, harassing visits and bizarre and intimidating Facebook messages. As her husband’s erratic behavior escalated to physical abuse and he claimed to be monitoring her every move, Susan tried to secure the military’s help and protection but received little in return.

“His command did absolutely nothing,” she told Oxygen. “I thought he was going to kill me.”

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) eventually got involved and came to Susan’s house to investigate. What they found sickened her.

In the attic, a set of footprints led to a small hole that had been drilled above the bathroom. Although there was no camera in place at the time, NCIS determined that Susan’s husband had used the peephole to insert a camera lens and record her in the shower. They’d later go on to discover he had made 19 different videos of Susan, one of which included her son in the bathtub in the background.

“Later, when they sent me the videos to watch, I actually vomited. I made it about a minute in before I ran to the bathroom,” Susan wrote in an email.

While investigators did find that Susan’s husband had emailed some of the materials to himself, they were unable to confirm whether or not he had shared the videos, she recalled. It would be difficult to know for sure unless they stumbled across the footage online, Susan said she was told. 

Unfortunately, Susan’s case is not an anomaly - neither in the military nor among the greater population. Non-consenual pornography - or, “revenge porn” as it’s colloquially known - is the unauthorized sharing of private, nude or sexually explicit photos or videos, and one in five Americans have been threatened or subjected to the practice, according to statistics from Data & Society. In fact, there are still about a dozen states where “revenge porn” isn’t explicitly outlawed, and those that do have laws against it are often narrow in scope.

From Mischa Barton’s ex-boyfriend threatening to release a sex tape of the actress, to Facebook’s announcement this week that it would launch a sophisticated screening process to stop the spread of unauthorized content on its site, the issue of “revenge porn” has taken center stage.

No more so than in the national ongoing case involving the United States Marines Corp.

Following a January complaint from Marine veteran Erika Butner, investigators discovered that a Facebook group called Marines United - which has more than 30,000 members - had been posting photos of hundreds of women online without their consent. The images, which feature both female Marines and civilians, naked and clothed, were often accompanied by grotesque comments about sexual assault and rape, and claims that women don’t belong in the military.

“They would post my photo and caption it ‘Smash or Pass,’...followed by extremely vulgar, degrading, and repulsive comments to include rape-talk."

Butner, who became the face of the story after testifying at multiple hearings, spoke out at press events and secured representation from renowned women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred. She said that, during her time in the Marine Corps, she had so many (clothed) photos taken from her social media accounts and shared without her consent, it was practically routine.

“They would post my photo, and caption it, ‘Smash or Pass,’ in other words, ‘would you have sex with this woman or not?’ followed by extremely vulgar, degrading, and repulsive comments to include rape-talk,” Butner testified at a congressional hearing this week.

Butner was joined on Wednesday at the hearing for the Democratic Working Women’s Group by California Congresswoman Jackie Speier. The congresswoman first publicly addressed the online harassment of female servicemembers in 2013 when she learned of a public Facebook page featuring images similar to the Marines United case. Although she alerted military leadership to the issue at the time, there’s been little done to address this “cultural rot” in the years that followed, said Speier.

The congresswoman took matters into her own hands last month, when she announced new legislation that would criminalize this type of photo-sharing without consent.  The Servicemembers Intimate Privacy Protection Act would “close a massive gap” in the Uniform Code of Military Justice in order to allow the military to prosecute those who share unauthorized images.

“Marines United is just the tip of the iceberg,” Speier said in a statement. “Websites with nude pictures of women in the military distributed without their knowledge and consent undermines our armed forces, unit cohesion and combat readiness.”

While Speier, Butner and others testified on the exploitation of women by this Marines United scandal, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller declined to participate, offering instead to meet independently with members of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. This decision only bolsters arguments from critics who say the Marine Corps is reluctant to address the prolific gender bias among its ranks, and that the brass’ laissez-faire attitude has cultivated an environment ripe for harassment.

Former US Marine Erika Butner (R) with attorney Gloria Allred [Getty Images]

“We were not in any way surprised when this broke. We’ve been hearing for several years from women who had been victims of this same type of sharing of photos without their permission,” said Col. Don Christensen (ret.), former Air Force chief prosecutor and President of Protect Our Defenders, a national group focused on ending sexual harassment and assault in the military.

The reports of unauthorized image-sharing date back to 2010. He began hearing from women who had given a photo to a partner, who then shared it online without permission. He also heard from women who had photos stolen off their computer while in a deployed location. The military had done nothing as a result, Christensen told Oxygen, even after he testified before a judicial proceedings panel and emphasized the importance of making “revenge porn” a crime.

“It fell on deaf ears,” he said. “They have demonstrated for decades that they lack the internal will to really take these issues seriously.”

“When the military fails to act in something like this, they not only let down the women in the military, they let down all of society.”

Existing military code prohibits photographing or videotaping someone without their consent. There are no “peeping Toms” allowed, said Christensen, but there’s no explicit rule against sharing images without consent. Congresswoman Speier’s proposed legislation would change this, he added, giving the military the ammunition they need to prosecute offenders, and hopefully, under continued pressure from media, advocacy groups and legislators, they actually will.

“When the military fails to act in something like this, they not only let down the women in the military, they let down all of society,” said Christensen.

In response to ongoing coverage of the Marines United case, the Marine Corps has released a video condemning the actions of the aforementioned Facebook group, announced a “Purple Harbor” NCIS task force to investigate illegal online behavior. They also created a detail “to determine the scale and scope of the problem” and to strategize how to change the aspects of Marine culture that promote gender bias.

Historically, the military has helped lead the U.S. in societal change, said Christensen, such as when it became the first institution to integrate African-Americans. Not only does the Marines United case give the military a chance to set an example for the rest of the country, but an updated military code could directly impact civilians as well. Under the proposed legislation, if the offender is in the service and the victim is a civilian, he or she will still be protected by these reformed laws, said Dr. Mary Anne Franks, legislative and tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

Over the last few years, major tech companies such as Google and Twitter have introduced new policies to help eliminate “revenge porn,” and the number of states with “nonconsensual pornography” laws has grown from about three to a whopping 35, Franks told Oxygen. However, many of these laws involve a “harassment’ requirement, meaning that for the unauthorized sharing of photos to be a crime, it has to be done with an intent to harass the victim.

This qualifier is detrimental to progress though, said Franks, since nonconsensual pornography is an invasion of privacy regardless of the perpetrator's intent. The Marines United case - which didn't involve the victims beyond stealing their photos - is a prime example of this. 

“It’s a really good reminder...that the heart of the wrong is not the harassment part,” she said.

Often times, nonconsensual photography is just one tool used by intimate abusers, said Franks, and they use the threat of exposure to intimidate victims from seeking help, compel them to agree to one-sided divorce or child custody arrangements and to extort victims into performing sexual acts.

For Susan, her husband’s secret videotapes in the shower were just one aspect of his ongoing mental, emotional and physical abuse. According to Susan, the two had been married less than a year when he began showing signs of controlling and abusive behaviors, and over the years that followed, this emotional and mental mistreatment developed into sexual and physical violence, and threats that she’d never see her children again.

After years of harassment and abuse, Susan’s husband served just a few months in the brig (military prison) and was honorably discharged from the military with full benefits, retirement and access to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He has not had to register as a sex offender and is now roaming free. Susan says she repeatedly asked about going to the civilian police rather than the military investigative system - the police, after all, would have had jurisdiction since the crimes occurred off-base. She was repeatedly discouraged from the move, she says. Looking back, she wonders if the outcome would have been different if she'd made the switch.

“Until or unless he assaults me again. I can’t get another civilian restraining order,” said Susan. “I can’t really get anything to protect myself.”

*Victim names have been changed to protect their identities.

[Photos: Getty Images]

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