WASHINGTON — Despite urgent efforts by the White House, Congress and the Pentagon to address the military’s burgeoning sexual assault crisis, degrading hate speech against women remains ubiquitous in the military — and it’s as close as the nearest computer screen.
Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered leaders to police all military work stations and remove anything that may contribute to “a degrading or offensive work environment.”
Yet Facebook and other social media pages populated by thousands of current members of the armed services are filled with the kind of misogynistic comments and photos that would be considered firing offenses at nearly any other job in the United States.
Often servicemembers use their full names and photos of themselves in uniform to denigrate and threaten female servicemembers, men they deem weak and anyone who dares to question their humor.
One Facebook page popular with Marines, plastered with jokes about rape and domestic violence, openly threatened to perform a violent sex act on Rep. Jackie Speier and her husband after the California Democrat wrote a letter to Hagel about the issue.
Another page named for and frequented by Marines featured a photo of female Marines in their camouflage utilities, with the caption, “Coming soon to a unit near you, Combat Action Mattress.”
A page for Army infantry soldiers, rife with sexist, racist and anti-gay postings, instructs visitors who don’t like the abrasive content to have sex with a donkey.
About 15,000 more people have “liked” that page than the page for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who took to Facebook himself last week to say the military “must do everything we can to rid our force of this crime.”
“We can and must do more to change a culture that has become too complacent,” Dempsey said Friday in a news conference at the Pentagon. “Now is the time for character to be valued as much, if not more, than competence. Now’s the time for moral courage at every level. There can be no bystanders.”
Each of the service branches has regulations banning offensive speech and any postings online that would bring discredit on the service, and commanders can punish those who disobey.
Army Regulation 600-20, for example, prohibits soldiers from participating in rallies, meetings, fund-raising activities, leadership roles and the distribution of literature for extremist organizations and activities, including those “that advocate racial, gender or ethnic hatred or intolerance.” Provoking speeches or gestures are included in the list of possible UCMJ violations related to that participation.
“Any Soldier involvement with or in an extremist organization or activity … could threaten the good order and discipline of a unit,” the regulation reads. Commanders are expected to educate soldiers and punish those who do not follow the regulations.
But in order to punish troops for what they post online, commanders first must know about it. Since most commanders do not routinely surf social media searching for wrongdoing and they avoid becoming Facebook “friends” with their subordinates, that means such violations may only come to their attention if they are reported to them or other authorities.
Enlisted troops also generally exclude officers from “make her famous” campaigns — in which risqué photos of allegedly unfaithful wives or girlfriends, along with their phone numbers and other personal information, are emailed or sent by text message to fellow servicemen, with instructions to harass the woman and forward the photos to as many others as possible.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Capt. Eric Flanagan, said any threats they learn of are immediately passed to Naval Criminal Investigative Services for a criminal investigation. But he said anyone who discovers offensive or derogatory information online posted by Marines is encouraged to contact the website’s administrators and report the offense to the Marine Corps inspector general complaint hotline. The complaints are later sent to commanders.
While all the services say they discipline troops for posting inappropriate or hateful material online, none keep track of how many have faced punishment. And, service representatives said, the punishments would likely be nonjudicial — statistics they do not release.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that some servicemembers do face some consequences for their online activities. For example, one of the Marine-related Facebook pages posted a photo with a caption mocking an officer who made his Marines clean the barracks as punishment for posting a photo of him on the page.
But those punishments haven’t stemmed the tide of anti-female postings.
And the offensive behavior isn’t limited to social media. According to the 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of active-duty servicemembers, 47 percent of women and 15 percent of men reported experiencing “sexist behavior” in the previous year. The same survey showed 41 percent of women and 20 percent of men had experienced crude or offensive behavior in the previous year.
Yet, 80 percent of women and 88 percent of men said their leadership “does well to promote a unit climate based on mutual respect and trust.”
On Thursday, President Barack Obama summoned top military leaders to the White House to discuss the issue of sexual assault. After the meeting, he said sexual assault in the military “is dangerous to our national security.”
“The reason we are so good is not because of fancy equipment, it’s not because of our incredible weapons systems and technology, it’s because of our people. … It comes down to do people trust each other and do they understand that they’re all part of a single system that has to operate under whatever circumstances effectively? The issue of sexual assault in our armed forces undermines that trust,” he said. “This goes to the heart and core of who we are and how effective we’re going to be.”
Several members of Congress, including Speier, have decried the rising numbers of military sexual assaults and worked to draw attention to a culture they say encourages harassment and abuse.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., expressed her disgust after an Army sergeant first class who worked in a sexual assault prevention program was accused last week of abusive sexual contact, assault, maltreatment of subordinates and pandering — acting as a pimp.
“It has become painfully evident that saying the military has a cultural problem in regard to sexual assault and sexual misconduct is a glaring understatement,” Tsongas said. “At worst, this is a deep-rooted and widespread acceptance of unprofessional, inappropriate and criminal behavior. At best, it is willful denial or head-turning on the part of too many military leaders.”
And while some military leaders, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, have linked the problem of sexual assault and harassment in the military to similar issues in civilian society, Pentagon spokesman George Little rejected those comparisons.
“It is not good enough to compare us to the rest of society,” Little said. “This is the United States military and the Department of Defense. It really doesn’t matter if our rates are similar to the rest of society, quite frankly. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard, and that’s what the American people demand.”