Many states are clamoring to pass legislation that criminalizes “revenge porn,” that is, the sharing of sexually graphic pictures or videos without the consent of the individuals involved. While not a completely new phenomenon, revenge porn has gained heightened attention due to the recent Marines’ scandal involving the sharing of nude pictures of female Marines and civilians. Such stories elicit the usual barrage of “what kind of person does that?” sorts of questions.

To suggest there is something uniquely pathological about the individuals who perpetrate such acts suggests there are merely a few “bad apples” and as long as we deal with them, we will have addressed the problem.

But as the famous Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, argues: it’s the barrel, not the apples, that we need to examine in such situations. After all, while not all 30,000 members of the Marines United engaged in the picture sharing and commenting, the majority of them stayed silent while this happened.

So what is “the barrel” in this case? As a sociology professor who has written and researched extensively about women, culture and globalization, I believe research from both social psychology and sociology needs to be combined to understand what’s going on. The barrel, or the larger context that we need to understand, is the culture of masculinity, often exacerbated in all-male settings. For, contrary to the language of legislation aimed at criminalizing revenge porn, it is not “individuals” who perpetrate such acts. It is mostly men.

Masculinity is a homosocial experience. That is, men value other men’s opinions, judgments and company more so than women’s.

Put another way, other men, not women, are the audience members for what men do, say, feel or think.

In a stark example, studies show even when young men are engaged in sex, their imagined audience (and that there is an imagined audience at all is telling) is made up of their “bros” and the sexual encounter simply becomes a way to gain more status among other men. Women, and sex, then, is a way to become a man among men.

The “bro mentality” gets exaggerated in spaces that are physically all male (e.g., fraternities) or that have recently switched to co-ed environments (e.g., women in combat roles in the armed forces). And, as predicted, territorial and exclusionary behavior tends to become exacerbated in these environments, with women seen as a threat to men’s control over that domain.

The concept of physical space translates, in the particular scandal with the Marines, to an online space that was designated as male only. It is clear from the kinds of videos and images posted and the responses received, that these were done to gain the approval of other Marine men, and strengthen masculine bonds by objectifying and degrading the women.

The Facebook group and the photo sharing was also a way to capture the “good old days” when men didn’t need to worry about the presence of women, or see them as anything more than sexual objects.

The presence of women, in previously all-male spaces, threatens men and their masculinity and creates a backlash that re-entrenches some of the least desirable aspects of aggressive masculinity in this culture. It is, thus, not a surprise that many of the comments posted on this site express a desire for sexual violence against the women.

None of this is to say that all men are violent and prone to acting in demeaning ways towards women. The vast majority of men do not engage in such behaviors. They do, however, more often than not, overlook it when they are confronted by it. This is why the actions of Marines United, with its 30,000 members weren’t reported on sooner, and why its current members didn’t publicly speak out against it.

But the Marines aren’t unique in this experience.

Perhaps the most famous example of masculinity as homosocial behavior and women as the currency by which men gain status among other men is that a presidential candidate can be caught talking about “grabbing women” and it can be explained away as “locker room talk.”

A locker room, too, is an all-male space.

If we truly wish to address the issue of women being sexually exploited and harassed, we need to look, not at individual pathology, but at what our culture teaches men about masculinity. We need to look at how boys become “real men.” When we can successfully redefine what it means to “be a man” or “act like a man,” we will see real change in how women are treated. Until then, tweaking of social media policy, or passing toothless bills, is not going to prevent revenge porn. And scandals like Marines United will happen again.

-Afshan Jafar

Afshan Jafar is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. She is the author of “Women’s NGOs in Pakistan,” and the co-editor for “Bodies without Borders” and “Global Beauty, Local Bodies.”

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