A still from one of the videos in question

"Male bonding" expert on Navy scandal

An anthropologist says the ribaldry that got a captain fired is often used by men to create a sense of belonging


Tracy Clark-Flory
January 5, 2011 4:55AM (UTC)

Navy Captain Owen Honors has been canned for showing raunchy and politically incorrect videos (below) to his crew aboard the USS Enterprise, a Pentagon official confirmed today. The self-directed films feature jokes about masturbation, rectal exams, homosexuality, bestiality and -- edging into the rich comedic terrain of 5-year-olds everywhere -- poop. There's also a shower scene starring two servicewomen (shown only from the shoulders-up) which led to yet more jerk-off jokes from male colleagues in later videos.

All that is to say: The videos behind this scandal are just about what you would expect from the stereotype of the salty sailor, which is a bummer for the many servicemembers who defy the infantile, homophobic, sex-crazed model. But there is no denying that the videos reflect a very real aspect of the sexual culture in all- or mostly-male institutions, especially ones in a high-stress environment like war. I went to anthropologist Lionel Tiger, author of "Men in Groups," for a little context. Unsurprisingly, Tiger, who popularized the term "male bonding," says this kind of ribaldry is extremely common.

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There is an "intrinsic tension from living together in a relatively crowded environment for long periods of time," and on a warship at sea, no less. That tension demands a release, and humor is a necessary outlet -- but laughs aren't the only motivator. Sexual stereotypes "reinforce the in-group feeling," he says. Women, who were banned from serving on submarines until just last year, are "an easy out-group to pick on," he says, and so are gays, who may soon be allowed to serve openly in the military. In both cases, it serves to prop up the heterosexual male norm, allowing for a touchy-feely-but-totally-not-gay "brotherhood."

Of course it's the importance of that "brotherhood" that has been used as an argument for keeping women from fighting on the frontlines and gays from serving openly; and Tiger is careful to note that he's offering an observation, not a justification of the behavior. The important thing here isn't to pass judgment, he says, but "to try to understand why it happens." Beyond Tiger's anthropological explanation, there is the simple fact that it's been allowed to happen. Now that DADT has been repealed, and the role of servicewomen is increasingly questioned, we'll get to see what happens when the straight male norm is openly challenged.

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Tracy Clark-Flory

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Gender Gender Roles U.s. Military

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