#Reviewing War Virgin: Liberation or Exploitation?

War Virgin: My Journey of Repression, Temptation and Liberation. Laura Westley. Dunedin, FL: War Virgin, Inc., 2016.

At some point, roughly between pages 200 and 250, I began to see War Virgin as tragedy. At first, I read through my fingers, horrified by author Laura Westley’s memoir of wildly unprofessional behavior as a young officer in the U.S. Army. I rubbernecked my way through graphic descriptions of dry-humping and masturbation, stories of an abusive childhood and objectionable mentorship. But a pattern emerged of more experienced, senior men who, by Westley’s account, sought overly-close relationships with her, usually so they could share their sexual fantasies and standards for female sexuality. My paradigm shifted as I saw a subtext not addressed by Westley in her “journey of repression, temptation, and liberation,” one focused instead on exploitation and toxic mentorship.

The armed services have long billed themselves as a refuge for unformed young people with unstable home lives, where they can find confidence and build skills. The tragedy at the heart of Westley’s story is not her individual choices, nor her vulnerability to the myriad authority figures she encountered in the Army; it’s the gendered way these possible mentors serially exploited Westley’s inexperience, at some unknowable cost of her potential.

I admit I approached Westley’s self-published memoir skeptically. I found it during a somewhat desperate Amazon search for literature—any kind of literature—written by women veterans. I would read anything, which is why I bought the book, though it languished in my cart for weeks. I hesitated in part because of the illustration on the cover: a woman, shirtless, cammie pants unbuttoned, proudly displays a sports bra and the waistline of white panties, in apparently deliberate contrast to her pistol, dog tags, and boonie cover. I hesitated in part over a tagline that accompanies the cover illustration—Make Love at War. In my nearly 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, I’ve been routinely sexualized, as have the few other women with whom I’ve served. My ability to do certain jobs in certain units has been questioned, often on the grounds that this sexualization is inevitable and will be so diminishing as to nullify any value I could provide and threaten unit cohesion. Naturally, I balked at a book that seemed to romanticize the complicated, often fraught dynamics of sex among members of a military unit. When the library of women’s war literature remains so small though, I didn’t feel I could ignore any one entry, as much as I wanted to.

My nerve nearly failed when I finally opened War Virgin. The book begins with a choice snippet of dialogue recalling Westley’s time at West Point in the early 2000s:

“I want you to put your hand on it,” my boyfriend Connor whispered into my ear.
“You mean, on your… cock?”[1]

After this first chapter, indelicately relating the story of Westley’s first hand job, War Virgin doubles back to her arrival at West Point. From there, the book presents a mostly linear, first-person account of Westley’s Army career, punctuated by flashbacks, mostly to her childhood. Unfortunately, Westley’s palpable sense of one-sided victimhood and penchant for hyperbole undermine her reliability as a narrator. Not that I think Westley is making up content; I would just turn down the amplitude on her observations. All the same, the contours of her story sound familiar, regardless of the reliability of particular details. Even as I raised an eyebrow at a number of Westley’s statements, I found the arc of her story instructive.

Westley grew up with fundamentally Christian parents who, by her account, emotionally abused her and rigorously controlled her sexuality—particularly her father. She fled to West Point, a decision at least partially driven by her father’s admiration for West Pointers. Seeking familiarity and “the attention and nurturing [she] so desperately wanted and wasn’t getting from [her] own family,” Westley joined a Bible study group called the Elite Christian Fellowship.[2]

Elite Christian Fellowship divided cadets into men’s and women’s groups for Bible study, which seemed focused on the traditional gender roles that undergirded their concept of a Christian marriage. Describing these formative years, Westley recalls her skepticism, even as a cadet. In particular, she’s dismayed by Cathy, a former U.S. Marine officer, and young mother who is married to an active-duty Army captain. Speaking to her women’s group, Cathy imparts wisdom such as, “When a woman becomes a mother…she needs to stay home full time in order to properly care for her children.”[3] Westley balks when Cathy informs her mentees that, even if she disagrees with her husband’s decisions, she submits to his judgment. “I couldn’t believe it. Here was an intelligent, formerly ambitious military officer, averting responsibility in her adulthood merely because she had a vagina.”[4] Westley doesn’t seem to accept everything she is told about women’s place in the world. She asserts contrary views, at least when the views she’s contradicting center on women’s work and are voiced by another woman. However, Westley seems more lost, her opinions more unformed when it comes to sex and women’s sexuality. And, while Westley interacts with few—if any—women authority figures after Cathy, it’s worth noting that she tends to accept what men tell her about what women are and should be.

Westley’s departure from her strict upbringing truly begins after graduation, when she checks into her first Army unit. Her boss—a major, desperate to be liked by his subordinates—fosters an environment where enlisted soldiers and officers discuss sex openly and regularly at work. Westley, young, unsure, and trying to relate, discovers that she can use raunchy humor as an in-road: “…unless I wanted to be isolated and ostracized, I needed to join in on the dick jokes and leave Jesus at home.”[5] This is a common reaction, for sure. Many military women see danger in being cast as the humorless bitch. But Westley dives in with abandon. She doesn’t unpack how these conversations impact her understanding of sex and what men expect of women when they have sex. However, she clearly internalized her coworkers’ boasts as guidance: “Every Monday morning, Sergeant Hemming shared his weekend sexcapades with our office, while [the major] stood by listening, laughing and lapping it up…I justified listening to these scandalous stories—complete with every play and position—by deeming them valuable lessons on how to please my future husband.”[6]

Westley’s re-education escalates when she deploys in support of the initial invasion of Iraq with a cast of much older, more experienced men eager to enlighten her. The warrant officer who makes Westley watch him masturbate nightly in the communal sleeping tent in Kuwait though she tells him to stop—whom, it should be said, Westley considers a dear friend—is just the first, though most persistent, example. There’s also the colonel who “tortures” another woman officer by making sexual innuendos at her expense.[7] Then there’s the master sergeant, Pete, who asks Westley to read and offer feedback on a lengthy and explicit letter he drafts to his mistress describing his violent rape fantasies.[8]

Westley experiences a turning point during a brief return to Kuwait to procure supplies for her brigade, which remains in Baghdad. It’s here, on a strange and disorienting reprieve from Iraq, that Westley spends significant time one-on-one with Pete. He apparently fills time with soliloquies about the women they see in Kuwait City: their relative attractiveness, his standards of female sexuality and desirability, how much they enjoy his unsolicited attention. Westley begins to consider how she appears to men: “…could I capture a man’s attention? Did men find me pretty? Was pretty good enough? Did I have what it took to be sexy? Was it important to be sexy?”[9] Westley interprets Pete’s attentions as a favor. When Westley gets a makeover at the Kuwait mall one afternoon, Pete watches intently, instructing the aesthetician to give Westley “sexy seductive eyes.”[10] Telling Pete that her boyfriend back home wants to have sex but respects her virginity, he responds, “Bullshit, something’s wrong with that guy.”[11]

Returning to her unit in Iraq, Westley sheds any remaining vestige of religious modesty. She performatively skinny dips and masturbates for some special forces guys. With a friend, she fantasizes endlessly about having sex in Iraq. Returning from deployment, Westley unceremoniously loses her virginity to her insipid boyfriend, then immediately dumps him. Within months, she meets an older, recently-divorced helicopter pilot. She goes to a strip club with him and some of his friends on their second date to show how “down” she is. Though it makes her uneasy, she receives a lap dance, because the guys thought it was hot. She settles into a sex-centric relationship with the pilot, eventually swinging with other couples, though that, too, makes her uncomfortable. Westley breaks free of the religious influences of her upbringing, but the opinions, expectations, and desires of older men still shape her “liberation.”

Rudderless young people join the military all the time—the armed services bill themselves explicitly as a place to find strength and discipline, particularly for those who aren’t living up to their potential in the civilian world.

At some point, as I thought about how unsuited Westley was for Army life, I realized that her case isn’t rare at all. Rudderless young people join the military all the time—the armed services bill themselves explicitly as a place to find strength and discipline, particularly for those who aren’t living up to their potential in the civilian world (“be all you can be”). Recruiters aren’t charged with finding perfectly mature people who are ready to accept the burden of military leadership immediately; the services expect that they will have to grow and develop their leaders through years of training, education, and mentorship. Some of these recruits, unfortunately, never experience this transformation, despite promises that they’ll shape up and find purpose. Many do, however, if they benefit from some combination of the right experiences and the right mentorship.

By her account, Westley served with a series of older men who sexualized her, crossing professional and personal boundaries in a uniquely gendered way. Stories like hers are sadly common. Too many older military men abuse power dynamics with inexperienced women in a way that they don’t with similarly unformed men.[12] Ultimately, every individual is responsible for his or her actions; Westley, to her credit, does not deny her part in some frankly horrifying breaches of the military professional ethic. But people—particularly emotionally immature, vulnerable people—are often influenced heavily by those around them. Nobody acts in isolation. If Westley’s account is accepted, then a pattern appears in her seemingly unconscious search for authority figures in which she finds men who obsess over sex—or virginity—and women’s desirability. In almost every case, a young man wouldn’t face these same influences and power dynamics.

But as Westley’s story developed, I stopped cringing as much over her exploits and started wondering more if she ever had much of a chance.

To a woman on active duty, constantly trying to prove her value—or, at the very least, that her mere presence isn’t destructive—the majority of Westley’s behavior is mortifying. I did not enjoy reading this book. But as Westley’s story developed, I stopped cringing as much over her exploits and started wondering more if she ever had much of a chance. Westley’s account reads extreme, but I’ve seen the basics too many times before. We’ll never learn the counterfactual—maybe Westley wouldn’t have thrived in the Army under any circumstances. The tragedy here lies in the unknowable: what could Laura Westley and other troubled young women have been with better, more responsible mentorship?

Kathryn Sudhoff is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: U.S. Marines in Iraq, July 31, 2006. (Sgt. Jennifer L. Jones/U.S. Marine Corps Photo)


[1] Laura Westley, War Virgin: My Journey of Repression, Temptation and Liberation, (Dunedin: War Virgin, Inc., 2016): 3.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 60-61.

[5] Ibid., 168.

[6] Ibid., 169.

[7] Ibid., 230.

[8] Ibid., 252.

[9] Ibid., 259.

[10] Ibid., 263.

[11] Ibid., 264.

[12] This dynamic has been well-documented at even the upper levels of the U.S. armed forces. Recent high-profile cases have involved the following powerful men, just to name a few: Retired General David Petraeus, the former military aid to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and former U.S. Army Division commander Wayne Grigsby. Tracy Crow has written movingly on being a junior woman subject to these power dynamics in her memoir, Eyes Right.