How The Military Needs To Evolve When It Comes To Sex

Scholars and opponents of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell say the Petraeus scandal is a reminder of the military’s awkward relationship with sex and sexuality.

Handout / Reuters

Over the past year, the military has been forced to very publicly confront some of its rules about sex and secrecy. The conversation stemmed from both a progressive win for equal rights (the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) and a shocking scandal (former CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair). The long debate over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and its repeal in September 2011 forced the military and the public to address why gay people wanting to serve should have to keep their sexuality secret. And now, with the increasingly mammoth Petraeus scandal, the public may be questioning a military law banning extramarital relations that many civilians were previously unaware of. The affair reportedly started in Petraeus’ first two months at the CIA, but he met Paula Broadwell while he was in the military. And General John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, is now under investigation for exchanging “inappropriate” e-mails with Jill Kelley, the Florida woman who had a part in exposing the Petraeus affair.

Experts and advocates for equality in the military say that in light of the Petraeus scandal, the military should take the opportunity to consider evolving its secretive and, in some cases, outdated attitudes toward and policies surrounding sex and sexuality.

“The military has long had an outdated view of sex and sexuality that needs to evolve. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s governing body of law, still criminalizes people for oral sex, anal sex and adultery, despite the prevalence of this behavior throughout both civilian and military society,” said Nathaniel Frank, a historian who researched Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for a decade and wrote the book Unfriendly Fire.

Although Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is no more, he said that it “wrote secrecy and dishonesty into law, which created a climate where people were not well versed in confronting sexuality in a reality-based way.”

Frank says laws like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, as well as the ban on extramarital sex, are remnants of a past era when the military held standards of conduct that were different from those of civilians. “Once upon a time, there was some logic to these taboos — they were an effort to set the military off as morally apart from civilian society; but if you don’t change with the times, you end up producing the opposite effect by insisting on policies that are unenforceable. This just undermines the rule of law because everyone knows no one’s following it.”

Danny Ingram, the National President of American Veterans for Equal Rights, said that the military should drop its focus on extramarital sex and focus on what he sees as a far more concerning issue: sexual harassment of female service members. “The nation needs to forgive members of the military for their consensual extramarital affairs and concentrate on the dangerous and deeply shameful exploitation by women service members by their comrades in arms,” he said.

As we’ve already seen, in the era of Gmail, it’s becoming increasingly hard to keep secrets. The military should take the hint, Frank added. “All these institutions could benefit from reexamining their culture of secrecy — when not demanded by genuine national security needs.”

The Daily Show, of course, found a way to turn the affair and its relationship to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell into a biting joke. On Tuesday night’s episode, “Senior Military Analyst John Oliver” joked to Jon Stewart: “We have to do something about heterosexuals in the military. They’ve got to be banned. If we think about it, it was probably a mistake to let them in in the first place.”

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