With the most dangerous combat positions opening to women, an age-old question resurfaces: How do we deal with sexual attraction—and harassment—on the front lines?
Late into her deployment to Iraq, Lieutenant Laura Westley, along with some of her fellow soldiers, decided to go skinny-dipping in the pool at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. They were all young, naked, trained to peak physical condition—and away from the prying eyes of commanders. As she swam, Westley began to fool around with a male soldier in her unit.
Westley recounts this scene in her memoir, War Virgin. “Screw this good Christian girl image and marrying my high school sweetheart,” she writes. “I just lived through a war…. It’s time for me to free myself. And man, was I horny.”
When Westley first went to war, she was a deeply naive virgin thrust into a unit filled with testosterone-fueled young men. The experience changed her, and when she returned to civilian life, she started working to foster open discussion about the intersection of sex and military life. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other people,” she says. “For them to get into a dangerous war situation and then to be like, ‘Wow, what are these feelings?’”
Recent revelations about male marines sharing nude photos of female comrades—secretly and without the women’s consent—have embroiled the Pentagon in controversy and opened a window onto the sex lives of men and women in uniform. But the U.S. military’s uneasy relationship with sex goes back much further. And as ubiquitous as sex is in military life, the institution seems woefully under-equipped to talk about it.
playboy spoke with several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (some of whom preferred to speak anonymously) about their experiences navigating the fraught sexual dynamics of service in today’s armed forces. Through a diverse assortment of voices and ranks, an outline emerges of a national conversation that could fundamentally change how both women and men participate in the military.
In 2013, the Obama administration ended the U.S. military’s long-standing “combat exclusion” policy that barred women from serving in units whose primary mission was ground combat: infantry, armor, artillery and special operations. The five service branches had until 2016 to open all occupations to women.
It was a controversial move. In January 2016 Republican congressman and Marine Corps veteran Duncan Hunter accused Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a vocal proponent of full gender integration, of “social meddling,” calling him “a greater threat to the Marine Corps than ISIS.” During the 2016 campaign season, several candidates criticized the policy. Nevertheless, while politicians campaigned, troops trained. In December 2016, the Army reported that women were qualifying for combat jobs at roughly twice the rate commanders had predicted.
James “Chaos” Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general who became the Trump administration’s defense secretary, had originally voiced skepticism about opening ground combat jobs to women. But his confirmation hearing reflected a different attitude. “I have no plan to oppose women serving in any aspect in our military,” Mattis told senators. “In 2003 I had hundreds of marines who happened to be women serving in my 23,000-person Marine division. I put them right into the front lines alongside everyone else. If someone brings me a problem, I’ll look at it. But I’m not coming in looking for problems.”
Mattis’s statements point to an inescapable reality: Throughout all the years of war since 9/11, women have already seen combat. They have flown combat air missions, driven on bomb-infested roads and served as military police—jokingly nicknamed the “coed infantry” post-9/11 because of their frequent use in counterinsurgency roles.
Military jobs aren’t like other jobs. Troops live and work together 24/7. They often cuddle in the field when it’s cold, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. They have to trust and depend on one another with their lives, and that sort of loyalty can lead to other, more confusing feelings. “It’s a level of intimacy you will probably never experience again in your life,” Westley explains. “I’ve struggled with this as a civilian—like, are my friendships as meaningful as they were in the military because we’re not on some crazy focused mission together, risking our lives?”
Some veterans have argued that, once women are added to the equation, these dynamics can threaten unit effectiveness. “It can shift the focus of doing the job if everybody’s trying to get laid. I know it sounds incredibly juvenile, but it’s incredibly true,” Green Beret turned author Jack Murphy told NBC in 2013 about the prospect of women in combat units. “Throwing a woman in the middle of a team like that is just going to make the entire team useless, because in the end there will be so much infighting, so much drama.”
A similar argument was mounted against repealing the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned openly gay people from serving. But when DADT was finally repealed, it notably failed to cause a collapse in military readiness. In fact, prior to repeal, some commanders complained that the policy had forced the termination of several military linguists, depriving units of their skills and knowledge.
But female infantrymen make for an even more radical—and noticeable—change. “I don’t think the burden should be on women to not be there,” Westley says. “The answer is to have an open dialogue and learn how to deal with it.”
Kate Germano, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who has had her own brush with controversy in this area, takes it a step further. “If we say having women in those units would disrupt male camaraderie and there’s nothing to be done about that except not having women in those units, we take the onus off leaders and basically don’t hold them accountable for leading these men and women,” she says. “And I find that to be tragic.”
Germano was a fierce proponent of holding women to high standards while in the Marines. She made headlines in 2015 when commanders removed her from her post at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island as the officer in charge of training female recruits. Commanders alleged she was “abusive.” She acknowledged that she could be tough but insisted she was no tougher than her male counterparts.
“Integration is going to succeed or fail based on how receptive we are to redefining what a warrior is and what they look like,” Germano says. During her tenure, rifle qualification rates for women climbed from around 72 percent to just under 92 percent.
Retired Green Beret Scott Satterlee, who was among the first U.S. troops to enter Afghanistan after 9/11, believes sexual tension could become an issue but argues that a basic level of maturity, dialogue and trust should solve that. After all, we’re talking about what’s supposed to be the world’s most professional military force. “If someone is tough enough to go through Special Forces selection or Ranger School, she’s earned a shot,” he says.
The story of the sexual misadventures of military personnel is as old as war itself. During World War II a common refrain in the U.K. was that American G.I.s were “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” During the Vietnam War, Playmate Jo Collins visited troops in the field and even handed out copies of playboy. The Centerfolds were displayed prominently in bunkers and in fighting positions—and were often treasured during soldiers’ “personal time.” In those years, the military was unapologetically a man’s world, with women mostly relegated to supporting roles as nurses and clerks. But as they began to take on larger roles, in jobs ranging from fighter pilots to intelligence gatherers, women gradually became peers.
With this change came a more conservative position on sex. In 1993 the Air Force ordered that all aircraft art be “gender neutral,” ending a decades-long tradition of sexy pinup designs. During the early days of the war on terror, commanders issued the infamous General Order Number One. It laid out rules all troops were expected to abide by during deployment, including bans on alcohol, sex and pornography. It proved difficult to enforce. Service members smuggled booze and sometimes hard drugs with more frequency than a lot of officials would care to admit. And of course some of them were having sex.
“When the leadership turns a blind eye to it, it gets out of hand,” Germano says. “In the military we have an obligation to stamp that stuff out, but not from a conservative Christian perspective. We have an obligation to stamp out inappropriate relationships because they disrupt trust in the unit. But we need to take the shame out of it.”
Both the mores and the blind spots shift when harassment rears its head.
The Pentagon has had to weather criticism surrounding a series of high-profile sex scandals and alarming rates of sexual assault. It’s not a problem unique to the military—college rape statistics suggest a wider societal problem—but military cases have generated considerably more controversy. And servicewomen, whether they like it or not, are at the center of the conversation.
The Pentagon has attempted several remedies. One is the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, better known as SHARP. The program has been praised for giving survivors of assault and rape better resources, including specially trained advocates to fight for them. But some troops have a dimmer take on it. Several women told playboy that SHARP is good at telling troops what’s not acceptable but doesn’t address how to deal with what may be natural or even healthy feelings. “It just makes you feel bad about sex. It makes it awkward, and it makes you not want to talk about it,” says Sarah, an Army reservist.
All the veterans playboy talked to agreed that rape and assault should be dealt with as severely as possible, but some women said they would like to see a more nuanced approach to sexual harassment—some of which they say is likely unintentional. It’s an opinion that may surprise women’s advocates. “Give a soldier an opportunity to apologize and correct the behavior and to learn from it and grow,” Westley argues. “You’re asking them to do crazy things and put their life on the line. Why not pay more attention to their development as human beings?”
But some forms of harassment are considerably more sinister than others.
In March, the Marine Corps announced it would be investigating members of a Facebook group, Marines United, that had exchanged nude pictures of servicewomen without their consent. “They’re on completely different levels,” Westley says, comparing Marines United with other forms of harassment. “To the degree in which the victim is violated, there’s no comparison.”
No female generals spoke out against Marines United. What does that say about how messed up our culture is?
Many of the photos were taken and sent consensually—at first. Sending nude photos is increasingly common among young military couples, as frequent deployments and travel mean long stretches of time apart. Modern technology helps close that gap. But once they’d fallen into the wrong hands, the photos were shared online without the subjects’ consent. From there, the images were kept in an online database that also contained individual women’s names, ranks and duty stations. Several women reported they had been the victims of stalking after the photos surfaced. Marines United started to share the photos soon after the first female infantry marines officially reported for duty, in January 2017.
Perhaps the most damning part of the scandal is the fact that it’s not the first instance of online harassment within the military community; commanders have known about the problem for years. In 2013, other military-centric Facebook groups, such as Just the Tip of the Spear and F’n Wook, gained infamy for publicly denigrating female troops. Despite complaints and press coverage, brass took little action.
“It’s like everyone wants to ignore it until it blows up,” says Germano. “And even when it blows up, we don’t do anything about it unless the media or some outside light shines on it and we’re forced to. No female generals spoke out against Marines United. What does that say about how messed up our culture is?”
The debate over women in combat isn’t close to being over. But regardless of whether or not they go as official combat troops, women will continue to serve together with men in dangerous places, doing dangerous things. It seems likely the pendulum will continue to swing between puritanical rules and blind oversight until what Westley calls the “really uncomfortable conversations about men and women, war and how we relate to one another” begin in earnest.