In Depth

US military nude photo scandal widens: What's it all about?

New message board uncovered, showing servicemen sharing explicit photos of female colleagues

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The US military has launched an investigation into reports that male members of the armed forces have been sharing nude photos of their female colleagues and veterans online.

Reports from the US last week uncovered widespread photo-sharing, initially by current and former marines on Facebook. 

But the BBC says it has since seen a message board where servicemen from all branches have "shared hundred of photos".

According to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, investigators are considering felony charges that could carry a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

How did the controversy begin?

Navy officials began investigating after the War Horse, a non-profit news organisation run by US Marine veteran Thomas Brennan, found details of a now-defunct Facebook group called "Marines United."

Picking up the story, the Centre for Investigative Reporting found that, since the beginning of the year, "more than two dozen women - many on active duty, including officers and enlisted service members - have been identified by their rank, full name and military duty station in photographs posted and linked to from a private Facebook page".

In one instance, "a woman corporal in uniform was followed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina by a fellow Marine, who surreptitiously photographed her as she picked up her gear", it said.

Those photographs were then posted online in the "Marines United" group, which had nearly 30,000 followers, drawing dozens of obscene comments, adds the website. 

This week, two women who said they were victims spoke out publicly, urging others to come forward.

"I can tell you that this exact behaviour leads to the normalisation of sexual harassment and even sexual violence," said Erika Butner, who served in the Marines for four years.                                                                            

What are the new developments?

According to the BBC, male service members from all military branches have been sharing nude photos of women on an anonymous message board.

They allegedly post photographs of clothed female colleagues and ask anyone on the message board if they have any "wins" – the term used for nude photos.

The host site seems to have little moderation and few rules, although it tells users: "Don't be evil," says Business Insider

Members are also instructed not to post personal details such as addresses, telephone numbers, links to social networks or last names.

However, says Business Insider, "many users on the board do not appear to follow those rules".

The message board may prove difficult to investigate properly. Unlike the Facebook group, where many users posted under their real names, the user base is mostly anonymous, says the BBC, and the site itself is registered in the Bahamas, outside the jurisdiction of US law enforcement.

What's the reaction been?

The incident has once again thrown light on the issue of gender equality in the US military. 

According to Pentagon data, 20,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2014, accounting for approximately one per cent of men and 4.9 per cent of women. One in four servicewomen experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination and these cases were often mishandled by officials - 44 per cent of victims were encouraged to drop the issue and 41 per cent said no action was taken.

Paula Coughlin, a former lieutenant in the navy, said: "For decades, our military and civilian leaders have failed to address a culture where sexual violence, harassment, misogyny and reprisal are commonplace."

Kate Hendricks Thomas, a former Marine Corps officer who is now an assistant professor at Charleston Southern University, said: "I'm kind of surprised. I'm still naive, I think, on some level."

Thomas criticised past responses to the problem, in which some had indicated the issue was too difficult for the military to wrap its arms around.

"This renders us less mission-effective. It's got to be a priority," she told Business Insider. "These websites are not boys being boys. This is a symptom of rape culture."

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