No sex please, we're sailors

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The Independent Online
Before 1990 the Royal Navy could say that emotional relationships between members of a ship's company would cause stresses in the fighting structure of the ship that would lead to a loss of morale and a fall in operational effectiveness. Just as a kingdom could be lost for want of a horseshoe nail, so hypothetically could a ship be sunk because of a love affair on board. To avoid this, homosexuality was taboo and homosexuals were discharged when identified. Then women joined the sea-going fleet and the argument looked set to crumble: heterosexuality could not be taboo, and heterosexuals could not be discharged because of their sexuality.

But the argument did not fall down totally, for the inherent openness of a heterosexual relationship made it less problematic. I recall a Chief Petty-Officer who showed signs of becoming infatuated with a Radar Plot Wren being teased vigorously by his messmates until he saw sense. Nevertheless, some heterosexual relationships on board ship are more difficult and damaging, perhaps when one of the couple is already married. As a result, overt heterosexual activity on board ship is not allowed and there are rules designed to regulate matters and to maintain "good order and naval discipline".

I believe that in society as a whole, and the naval community in particular, we are not yet ready to have a parallel set of instructions to regulate homosexual activity. The climate may well change in the next 15 years, as it has in the past 15. But now there is a substantial perceived difference.

The mess-deck on a ship is a crowded place: some say that more sailors sleep in a given space than would be permitted forpigs. It demands scrupulous standards of personal behaviour over long periods from ratings who need the assurance of a sexually neutral zone. Men and women sleep in different compartments for self-evident reasons, but a ship's company cannot reasonably be divided up between heterosexual and homosexual messes. Some ratings are much younger than the average 20 to 21 years old, and the commanding officer, in some cases, has a literal duty in loco parentis and an implied one in others. I believe the majority of both parents and commanding officers prefer to interpret this duty conservatively, maintaining ships as sexually neutral.

This rather loose, but nevertheless persuasive, argument applies directly only to naval ratings in ships, but what is good for ratings must be extended to officers and to shore establishments.

The example of most of our Nato allies might press us to relax our restrictions. But my impression is that the relaxations in other nation's services are not universally welcomed, and decisions have been taken for reasons not entirely related to those services' well-being. Anyway, if the case to continue to exclude homosexuals from Britain's armed forces stands on its own merit, then let it stand as a desirable piece of subsidiarity.

The writer is director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.