Gay soldiers and the inverse sock-pair problem

The complicated combinatorics of mixing gays and straights.

Eugene Volokh’s thoughts about the lameness of the standard arguments against gays in the military as they apply to lesbians, and in particular his follow-up on the problem of sleeping and showering arrangments, which drew a previous comment in this space, have elicited some additional reflections from Mike O’Hare, who writes:

The problem of making social arrangements when a society admits to its constant, significant fraction of gays and lesbians continues to be perplexing. There’s plenty of plain old bigotry and fear around (let us pause to sympathize with the wretched existence that poor Spokane mayor must have been leading) but I think people are also subconsciously aware that sexual opportunity cannot be managed as we have traditionally done if some males and females are homosexual. It’s analogous to the sock puzzle: you have twelve each brown and black socks in a drawer. In the dark, how many do you have to take out to be sure you have a pair? Most people interpret “a pair” subconsciously as a brown and a black and say 13, but a pair of socks is two brown or two black, so the answer is three. (Another subconscious mishearing of the problem as “…to pair with the first one you pick out”) leads to another wrong answer, 14)

Traditional conventions for sleeping spaces, toilets, baths, manners and what-have-you are premised on the goal of preventing association of “a pair” where a pair means a male and a female, in circumstances (usually) of undress; in especially strict societies, such as Spanish upper classes of previous centuries, alone together at all. Segregation of males from females, who are visually distinguishable with high reliability, achieves this.

But If a [sexually attracted] pair also means two gay men or two gay women, the standard recipes simply can’t be made to work, and if the myth/fear of gay predation on straights (or straight male predation on anyone in a skirt) is in play, it’s even worse. The only systematic scheme that matches historical models in their reassurance that sexually attracted pairs won’t meet in risky circumstances is impractical and offensive: private quarters for each gay person, or maybe straight dorms separated by sex plus doubles-with-bath with a gay man and gay woman in each. If your socks had sex in same-color pairs, and you didn’t want lots of socks, you would need twelve drawers, with a brown and a black in each. If they had sex either way, twenty four little cubicles.

I don’t recall much discussion of the combinatorics of adapting historical practices to the realities of the human population.

Accepting gays and lesbians into traditional organizations of all sorts will force us to depend on self-control, learning, and manners where rules and locks have traditionally been reassuring. Just going by the population ratios, it’s obvious that every straight adult has been in locker rooms and dormitories with gay people of his own sex all his life, quite uneventfully, but as so often happens, the facts aren’t as powerful against fear as they should be…

How the apparent discovery of human sexual pheremones influences all this is anyone’s guess. But if the laboratory result holds up, the argument that the sexual orientations of males are hard-wired, rather than chosen, just got much stronger.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: