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How These Women Veterans Are Catching (& Stopping) Revenge Porn In The Marines

Photo courtesy Jennifer Esparza

One year after the U.S. Marine Corps was first rocked by a nude-photo sharing scandal, it seems not much has changed. Explicit photos of female service members continue to be posted and shared, without their knowledge or consent, in private groups online — despite bipartisan outrage from both Congress and the public. However, some veterans who believe Marine Corps leadership has been slow to curb the nonconsensual photo sharing happening within its ranks are taking action. A group of female Marine veterans are shutting down military revenge porn and nude photo sharing pages, one group at a time.

When Erin Kirk-Cuomo received a tip last week that a Dropbox folder containing more than 260 nude or semi-nude photos of female Marines was being shared through a private group on Facebook, she jumped into action. Within 24 hours, Kirk-Cuomo had worked to get the group shut down; by Saturday, Dropbox removed the folder, titled "Hoes Hoin'," from its platform (thanks to a little help from VICE News, the first news outlet to break the story).

"The continual harassment, sexual harassment, sexual pressure, and coercion from the male Marines can be extremely difficult to deal with."

It wasn't the first time Kirk-Cuomo, a Marine veteran and photographer, had reported such a group to a social media or file-sharing networks. In fact, you might say, uncovering these groups is how Kirk-Cuomo spends much of her free time since co-founding Not In My Marine Corps. Initially created as an informal support group, Not In My Marine Corps is now a grassroots organization focused on ending sexual harassment and assault within the military. Along with providing survivors a safe and supportive space to say "me too," the group's been instrumental in getting social media networks like Facebook to remove pages that share nonconsensual nude photos.

"Listen, I love the fact that I was a Marine. I'm proud of what I did in the Marine Corps," Kirk-Cuomo tells Bustle. "I had an amazing experience, I did amazing things, and was given amazing opportunities through being a Marine. But then there is the other side of it: The continual harassment, sexual harassment, sexual pressure, and coercion from the male Marines can be extremely difficult to deal with."

Jennifer Esparza, another veteran and Not In My Marine Corps co-founder, tells Bustle she experienced seemingly endless sexual harassment while in the Marines. Ultimately, Esparza says it was a large part of the reason she decided to leave the Marine Corps after 11 years of service. "I loved being in the Marine Corps and what it stood for. The core values of the Marine Corps — honor, courage, commitment — I took those really seriously," Esparza says.

Photo courtesy Jennifer Esparza

Jennifer Esparza, another veteran and Not In My Marine Corps co-founder, tells Bustle she experienced seemingly endless sexual harassment. She says that was a large part of the reason she left the Marine Corps after 11 years of service. "Because it happened pretty much everywhere it just felt like that was something I was going to have to deal with," Esparza says. "When I was looking for a community [to be a part of] I wasn't looking for that community to also abuse my presence."

While Kirk-Cuomo's military service came before smartphones and social media became integral parts of our everyday lives, she's no stranger to the feelings of violation that come along with nonconsensual photo sharing. She says that during one of her deployments overseas, she discovered men in the unit she was with were not only discussing the sexual things they'd like to do to her, but also masturbating to pictures of her in civilian clothes that they'd downloaded from her Myspace account.

"This kind of behavior happened to me 10 years before the Marines United story came to light," Kirk-Cuomo tells Bustle, referring to the nude photo scandal that first made headlines last year. "These were things that women and other Marines had been telling our commanders were happening 10 years before Marines United and it hadn't changed."

Both Esparza and Kirk-Cuomo say they felt alone in their experiences with sexual harassment for a long time, not realizing that other women might be experiencing similar things. That feeling of isolation caused Esparza to question if she was somehow to blame: "I definitely felt for some time that maybe it was me — maybe I need to stop wearing any kind of makeup, maybe I need wear to wear two sports bras so you can't see the outline of my chest." Esparza got into CrossFit in the hopes that being stronger would make male Marines take her more seriously; none of it worked.

Photo courtesy Erin Kirk-Cuomo

Eventually, Not In My Marine Corps' founders came together — as well as Esparza and Kirk-Cuomo, the group's co-founders also include Marine Corps veteran Lisa Gleason and Sara, an active duty service woman whose full name has been redacted in an effort to protect her from potential retaliation.

"Once we became more vocal and started talking to each other we realized that we all had stories about this, about harassment, rape, assault and that this wasn't an anomaly, this was a norm," Kirk-Cuomo tells Bustle.

Empowered by their shared experiences, the women formed a Facebook group early in 2017 where both current and former Marines could discuss their experiences in a judgement-free space. A few weeks later, the Marines United scandal broke. No one in the group was surprised.

"This was just the first time they'd been caught," Esparza says. "This has been going on for a very long time so it didn't feel very new to us."

In the aftermath of that scandal, Not In My Marine Corps quickly evolved from a support group to a public advocacy group. Along with reporting Marines United "copycat" groups, the organization also seeks to empower female service members who've experienced sexual harassment, assault, or revenge porn. They connect service members to a number of resources, including legal counsel, behavioral health counselors, and information about filing an official report or getting unwanted content taken down from the web.

Kirk-Cuomo says she doesn't think the military has done enough to squash the practice of nonconsensual photo sharing. Since the Marines United scandal hit headlines, 55 Marines have been disciplined for what the military calls "online misconduct." At the time it was shut down, the Marines United Facebook group listed some 30,000 former and current Marines as members.

The Marines Corps tells Bustle it takes all allegations of misconduct seriously. "This is an issue that takes all hands to address — from the institution holding people accountable to the average Marine doing the right thing and bringing these kinds of sites to our attention," Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Brian Block says in a statement.

According to Block, the Marines have been working to improve the way in which it trains recruits, supports victims, and enforces accountability. "The Marine Corps, with the support of NCIS, continues to identify, investigate, and hold accountable those who violate our policies and standards when they are brought to our attention," Block says. "We expect every Marine must step forward, take action, and do the right thing. Silence is not acceptable."

Photo courtesy Erin Kirk-Cuomo

Not In My Marine Corps encourages those eager to help advocate for service members to call their congressional representatives in support of the Military Justice Improvement Act (which would change how crimes like sexual assault are prosecuted by the military) and the ENOUGH Act (which makes revenge porn a federal crime).

Kirk-Cuomo also advocates for the desegregation of men and women in Marine Corps basic training. "The Marine Corps very much has a deep-rooted issue from the very beginning of boot camp through training where women are seen as other than, not real Marines, and not welcome," she tells Bustle.

Esparza and Kirk-Cuomo both agree that sexual harassment and nude photo sharing are symptomatic of a deeper cultural problem within the Marines. "One of the catch phrases we hear so much now is 'toxic male culture' or 'toxic masculinity.' I definitely believe the Marine Corps has a problem with that," Kirk-Cuomo says, adding that the military needs to acknowledge its culture problem in order to solve it.

"It's going to be a long process," she adds. "I'm not naive to that. So, it's just going to be a question of are they dedicated enough to change it or are they just giving lip service."