The Thinking 

The U.S. Navy’s Love Boat Culture

October 11, 2012


SAILORS were once known for spending their leisure hours in brothels in foreign ports. Okay, they were not just known for it. They actually did it. That, for better or worse, was considered compensation for hard work and long hours at sea. Things have changed dramatically. Now men in the Navy have much less incentive to visit these fleshpots. On many naval ships, as much as 40 percent of the crew is women. And, there is plenty of opportunity for sex with shipmates. News flash: The typical naval vessel is becoming more and more like your average college dorm.

In his interesting and candid article “Co-ed Crew: Reality vs. Taboo,” in Proceedings Magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, Capt. Kevin Eyer writes:

[I]t would not be unusual for you to be glad, believing that your Navy has grown up into a service no longer sullied by raw, alcohol-fueled lust. You may reasonably think that the Navy is a professional and sober organization in which the worst elements of human weakness have been stamped out. Certainly that is the image that leadership jealously promotes and guards.

But you would be naïve to believe this mythology. You see, human nature has not changed, and water inevitably finds its own level. So, even despite the Navy’s ever-increasing efforts to legislate morality (or perhaps because of it) sailors have discovered new ways in which to be, well, sailors. Over time, they have largely replaced those historic foreign dalliances with that which is more expedient and close at hand: sex with their shipmates.

The Navy culture fundamentally changed after the Tailhook incident in 1991. Eyer, who is retired, writes:

In September 1991, Navy and Marine aviators were reputed to have sexually assaulted 87 women or otherwise engaged in “improper and indecent” conduct at the annual “Tailhook” convention in Las Vegas. As a result, 119 Navy and 21 Marine Corps officers were referred for disciplinary action.

Today, few remember those events as more than a piece of curious, ancient history. In truth, though, Tailhook is the Rosetta Stone without which modern Navy culture cannot be decoded. The public excoriation heaped on the Navy fundamentally altered the service and led directly and immediately to the full integration of women into ships and aviation squadrons. In short, Tailhook led to the most sweeping social change experienced by the Navy since racial integration. However, unlike racial integration, gender integration took place virtually overnight—and without thought or consideration regarding potential consequence.

Was integration of women into ships and squadrons inevitable, reasonable and fair? Yes. Was it in step with the general, cultural times? Yes. Did anyone ask whether it would improve our ability to perform our core mission; prompt and sustained combat operations at sea? Did anyone wonder whether men and women would be able to keep their hands off one another? Does anyone care?

He continues:

Casual observers—civilians and those who have never served in a fully integrated combat unit—seem convinced that men and women can, and are, serving together with a cheerful disregard for one another’s gender. This is ridiculous. Physical interaction is the natural and inevitable result of male/female contact and it always will be. Look at the sheer mass of evidence: Record numbers of commanding officers, executive officers, and command master chiefs are being sacked for personal misconduct. If they who have so very much to lose aren’t being good, how can we expect our sailors to behave?

The truth is that men and women are having sex with one another, regularly, and in blatant disregard of regulations. Cavorting with the foreign populace has been replaced by cavorting with shipmates. They are more or less discreet, depending upon the unit, but you would have to be blind not to see that it is happening, and happening a lot. Put healthy young men and women together in isolation and under stress for long periods of time and they will interact.

Imagine what this will mean to unit cohesion in times of war. Also, imagine the simmering jealousies that routinely take place on ships. A modern Mutiny on the Bounty would be ugly, involving rape and sexual rivalry. Eyer does not come right out and say it, but he suggests that running a military operation that involves rampant sexual dalliances among sailors is not good for combat readiness. And, most remarkably of all, it has not led to that long dreamed-of and elusive goal of equal numbers of women in command. Large numbers of women drop out once they marry or settle down. They simply don’t want to stay, which means, though Eyer does not mention it, that their early training is not a good investment. The American military is a taxpayer-funded matchmaking service.

Because so few women stay on, the Navy takes in a high number of women, discriminating against men seeking entry, in the hopes that some will make it to the top. Eyer writes:

It is not advertised, but the Navy actively engineers the system throughout to ensure that a critical mass of women (in the surface warfare officer community, that being about 25 percent) is maintained and that successful female role models are developed at higher ranks. The irony in all this is that despite the Navy’s conscious determination to ensure women’s success, it is quite difficult, and costly, to achieve that 25 percent figure. (The figures cited in this article are drawn directly and recently from senior officers in the Bureau of Naval Personnel who wish to remain anonymous. CHINFO has persistently declined to provide the author with any numbers related to the women-at-sea program.) Women, it turns out, generally do not wish to remain in the service past their first years of obligation; a great many decide that Navy life is fundamentally incompatible with their wish to have a family.

Generally, the Navy has adopted a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to fraternizing on board — except when it comes to charges of sexual harassment or when those in top command are involved. Eyer says one possible solution to this hypocrisy is to decriminalize sex on board. So in other words, sexual conduct would be no more unlawful than it is at American colleges.

Or, another solution is this:

Or, we could simply default to a natural balance—one that has been carefully yet quietly subverted in the last quarter century. That is, we could cease our current policy, which is a disproportionate accession of women, and require those who do enter to come and stay under the same standards as are applied to men—no better and no worse.

In other words, only the undesirable lesbians would stay, thereby resolving the dilemma and restoring business at those foreign brothels.

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