Co-Ed Crew: Reality vs. Taboo

By Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

While a mere 25 years ago, things have changed and this is not how it goes now. The sly and expedient belief that “God can’t see us when we’re outside the United States” has been overtaken by time, technology, and events. How truly mild and sober the modern Navy appears to be. Today, you are more likely to see American sailors in Thailand taking tours of jungle ruins and painting orphanages as you are to see them furtively skulking about the fleshpots of the Bangkok high-street.

Thus, it 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.

Why the World Turned

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?

An Extraordinary Dilemma

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.

Still, one might ask, why has it taken 20 years for gender integration to flower into a full-blown crisis? Several reasons: First, after mandating that integration would occur, it took quite some time to grow the number of serving women to the point where full integration was actually possible. For example, as late as 1999, just a few combat ships were integrated at any level, and in those, only about 10-20 percent of the crew was composed of women. Second, the sexes had a healthy fear of one another for a long time: It was a scary terra incognita for all. Third, it is also true that some individuals then serving exhibited a significant amount of hostility toward women. Fourth, everyone was highly reactive, and cases of misconduct were aggressively investigated.

Eventually though, enough women were available to assign to ships. Today, many crews have upward of 40 percent women. As their numbers grew, the previous fears and resistance slowly fell away. Over time, fraternization became simply too much of a problem to chase at the command level. It was endemic.

Still, sexual misconduct and fraternization are clearly forbidden by Navy regulation, and this is based in the idea that intramural sex degrades the cohesion of combat units. If the mission is to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea (and it is), then anything that degrades that capability must be seen as problematic.

This sets up a dilemma: Fraternization is bad for combat effectiveness, and it is also a violation of regulations. On the other hand, to confess that men and women can’t act “right,” in spite of years of effort to attain gender diversity, is to concede a sort of post-Tailhook defeat. What to do?

How To Force a Square Peg

Today, the reality for the Navy is that we are not at war, in a classic sense, and none really is foreseen. There is, however, intense interest, much of it self-generated, regarding the success of the “women-at-sea” effort. Whether consciously arrived at or not, the result is that concern for combat effectiveness has taken a remote back seat to the politically expedient.

So how is this problem of fraternization addressed today? Specific cases exist of commanders both ashore and afloat becoming aware that their charges were actively fraternizing. Rather than ask questions that would lead only to pain for all and yet more humiliation for the Navy, some of these leaders decided simply to ignore the misconduct as long as they were suitably discreet. A new sort of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach has become the de facto law of the land.”  

Commanders in combat units have slowly adopted this same approach. It only makes sense to do so: Sexual misconduct has become too common to be rooted out without the effort becoming a circuslike travesty, for which no one will be grateful.

But is it all right to steal or lie or cheat as long as one is “suitably discreet?” Are the rules, so jealously guarded, worth the paper they’re written on, or is the illusion of collective sexless harmony more important?

The Quick and the Dead?

Despite the adoption, top-down, of this new Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell approach, under which most receive a more or less free pass in all but the most egregious cases, our captains, executive officers, and command master chiefs—the so-called Command Triad— are held closely to standard, which they should an must be. In their cases, even a hint of misbehavior is pursued promptly. They serve as sorts of “heads on stakes,” designed to warn other potential interlopers who might be considering a try in the land of misconduct. Usefully, they also demonstrate to the world that the Navy—apparently—is serious about this stuff.

Indeed, record numbers of misconduct-related Triad firings have occurred in the past few years, and this trend shows no sign of cooling. Another dilemma: These Triad firings are embarrassing—they suggest that all is not well in the land of gender integration. On the other hand we are resolute in our conviction to give no quarter to command-level leadership. Another clever answer is sought.

The way the Navy is “handling” this is by claiming that there’s not really a problem at all. The service tells us that despite the ugly stories, actually less than 1 percent of commanders are being fired—a figure in line with historic norms. In fact, the statistic only holds true if one calculates the numbers by including every billet marked as “command” or “command-equivalent,” either at sea or ashore. Then you get more than 2,000 “commanders” to use for the equation. But if the math is done using, for example, only fully integrated combat ships, it turns out that correct number is closer to 10 percent CO firings, which certainly does seem significant.

Oddly, there seems to be no discussion of issues that might underlie. In other words, if you’re a command master chief and you fraternize, you’re done. But, if you are an ensign or a first class petty officer, does anyone want to know? Is an unduly familiar relationship between a commander and an ensign any less harmful than one between a chief and a seaman recruit?

Today, there are many married, junior-officer couples who met in their first assigned ship or squadron. Likewise, there is a significant number of officer/enlisted couples. Does anyone suppose that all of these people behaved with only chaste, mutual admiration right up to the moment when they departed their unit? Yet these relationships (even officer-chief marriages) are consciously ignored by the service as long as the participants are suitably discreet—whatever that means.

Choose Your Poison

Of course, at this point you may be asking yourself, “So what?” So what if the Navy suddenly and dramatically reinvented its culture as a result of a very ugly incident? So what if there is artificiality to all of this? If the result is that women are fully integrated into our combat units, isn’t that a worthy outcome, whatever the price?

On the other hand, the American taxpayer may actually be interested in the Navy’s ability to conduct its mission. Those taxpayers, were they more generally informed, might sensibly believe that endemic fraternization is not only contrary to good order and discipline, but fundamentally tears at unit cohesion. They might even ask: “Are our combat units better for this?”

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution here, and thoughtful people have widely disparate views on the subject. The Navy refuses to even discuss it other than to say that gender integration is wildly successful.

Having said that, everyone agrees that whoever else is fooling around, there can be no quarter given to those in the Command Triad: They must be held closely to the ideal standard.

One other thing is pretty clear, as well—or should be: Whatever it is we’re doing now doesn’t seem to be working. If it were, we wouldn’t be roiled by these Triad firings, and we wouldn’t be living with free-wheeling sexual congress in combat units, either. Nor would we be mortally concerned with the rising specter of apparently commonplace incidents of rape. And ethically-speaking, we would not be living in a state of ongoing, multi-layered hypocrisy. What to do?

We could change the rules: We could simply accept ground-truth as it exists today. One of the fundamental, pass-down rules of Navy leadership is “Don’t make rules that you can’t enforce.” Keeping men and women physically separated from one another is clearly unenforceable. So we could “decriminalize” it. Sexual liaisons, even in combat units, would simply be seen as inevitable, natural and un-stoppable. While this approach would not solve some problems, the Navy would at least escape the miasma of hypocrisy under which it now lives. We could look ourselves in the mirror again.

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.

Some Plain Truth

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.

The Navy thus takes in a disproportionate number of women, knowing that a disproportionate number will also be lost. In fact, almost 40 percent of assessed officers are women, though men desiring entry still greatly outnumber them. This inequality is “necessary” since the attrition rate of these women is, literally, two times greater than that of men (44 percent versus 22 percent).

And still, we’re not doing well. Look at the numbers: There are approximately 8,300 surface warfare officers. Remarkably, 20 years after integration, there are still fewer than 30 women who are senior enough even to be eligible for command of a ship. The result is that out of 116 combat ships in commission today, there are a mere 4 commanded by women. The fact is that women simply do not choose to stay, and those who do don’t stay in warfare communities.

What Way Ahead?

Perhaps a return to the natural equilibrium is worth further consideration. What if we were to cease this enervating struggle and simply take a gender-blind approach to the whole endeavor? It would certainly seem to be more “fair.” More significant, there would inevitably be fewer women in combat units—statistically, the opportunity for misconduct would decline, perhaps dramatically. Indeed, a variety of troubling incident-types would decline. Yes, it is unlikely that we would achieve that “critical mass” of women, but this should be seen as a cost of business, resulting from an honest and equitable approach.

One wonders what would happen if the following question were put to women in the service: Do they wish to be judged by a different metric or would they demand to be measured on the same scale as men? Did anyone ask them what they wanted?

And what what would happen if another question were put to the public—a public that fully trusts and expects the Navy to be capable of carrying out the mission: Which do you prefer, combat ready units or a world-class standard of diversity?

We should be asking ourselves these questions: Is widespread sexual congress between members of combat units a bad thing? If so, how bad? In other words, what is the actual cost of having integrated combat units? Once we know these things, the big question, which has never been addressed, becomes this: If we can’t have both mixed-gender crews and chastity, which do we want? And by the way, when we use the term “we,” just who is that, exactly?

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three of them: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62). He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings .


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