Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Andrew Sullivan is baffled that supposedly tough soldiers seem so skittish about the idea of accepting the presence of openly gay men in their midst. "Is it because they're afraid of being raped?", he asks. "C'mon. Assuming all gay men - or even any - are potential rapists is completely loopy. (And the same people who make this bizarre argument would scoff at a woman who screamed rape if a man looked at her in a sexually interested way.)"

Oddly enough, Sullivan doesn't evince the slightest mystification over the elaborate lengths to which the military goes to protect women--tough, hardened military women, mind you--from invasions of their privacy by men. Why aren't military showers, bunks and latrines co-ed? And why all the draconian rules against "fraternization" and so on? Are these women soldiers afraid of being raped by their well-disciplined colleagues? Are they afraid of being looked at by men with lust in their hearts?

Well, yes, actually--and understandably so. One doesn't have to believe that all straight men are rapists, or that the male sexual gaze is inherently brutalizing, to understand why women (in this culture, at least) feel unsafe bathing naked around male soldiers (or groups of them). It doesn't matter if most of the time, nothing untoward happens; it only takes one major incident--or a long-enough sequence of small, subtle, incremental steps--for all assumptions of safety to break down completely. (If you're a weakling to be bothered by glances, after all, then what about playful pats on the shoulder? Or elsewhere? Where does the line get drawn? How? And by whom?)

The instinctive anticipation of this threat of sudden breach or gradual erosion of personal safety is likely the source of that general feeling of discomfort that causes women to want to guard their privacy from men when forced into close quarters with them. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that men would want to take the same precautions with respect to gay men; after all, gay men may not be substantially worse than straight men in this regard, but there's no reason to believe they're any better (and, as straight men themselves are well aware, that's plenty bad enough, in the worst cases).

Of course, military training is designed to break down instinctive anticipations and general feelings of discomfort and replace them with rigorous discipline; and if it turned out one day to be militarily necessary to drill soldiers to get over their discomfort around gay comrades the way they get over, say, terror of enemy fire, then the army would no doubt do what had to be done. But each such psychic hardship imposed on soldiers exacts a toll, and for the military to wish to avoid an avoidable one, so as to be able to concentrate on the unavoidable ones, is hardly a demonstration of bigotry or cowardice. Rather, it demonstrates a recognition of, and respect for, the limits and costs of discipline, and an unwillingness to bury or deny those costs in order to indulge various varieties of political dogma.

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