The sock riddle returns

So DADT repeal won’t wreck the armed forces and leave us naked to our enemies.  The Marines’ honor has been a little besmirched by that noble service registering the highest fraction (40-60% compared to 30% average for the whole military)  expecting negative effects, but they will get over it and they will follow orders with good will as they always do.  In ten or even five years, we will be as puzzled that we tolerated institutionalized military anti-gay bigotry as we are now that we used to allow people to fill an airplane cabin with cigarette smoke.

At the press conference, someone asked about separate housing and bathrooms.  This one always gives me a laugh, because it depends on fundamentally misunderstanding what sexual preference means for social convention. Recall the riddle: If you have twelve black and twelve brown socks in a drawer in a dark room, how many do you have to take with you into the light to be sure you have a pair?

Bathrooms, locker rooms, and sleeping quarters separate by sex derives from some version of the old Spanish convention that if a man and a woman were alone together, it would be an unthinkable reflection on the man’s masculinity to imagine that they didn’t have sex, therefore architecture and behavioral rules are directed at preventing two people of whom one might be sexually attractive to the other to be alone together, or together undressed, or at least alone together undressed.  If we want to generalize this convention to homosexuals of both sexes, before we even ask about the cost of “separate quarters”,  we have to ask, “separate for whom?”  Generalizing the rule for straight people to gays would require two dormitory/barracks, one each for known-to-be-straight men and women, a double room for each available pair of  gay man/lesbian woman, and singles for every remaining gay person.  Don’t even think about all the “unisex” single bathrooms*.  A gay men’s barracks, for example, would be the chastity equivalent of a coed one for straights.

You need three socks, not thirteen, because a pair of socks is two of the same color, not one of each color.  A population with gay people in it means couples aren’t necessarily one of each sex, and if not having sex is what matters, doors and signs are not going to do the job.  It will have to happen the way most people in modern societies don’t have sex when they could but don’t, which is almost all the time (just look around you): by  not doing it with unwilling partners, or with subordinates, or when it’s otherwise ill-advised.  Big deal; next issue.

*I give up; why is a bathroom specifically available to two sexes, one person at a time, called unisex and not uniperson?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “The sock riddle returns”

  1. Michael, I'm curious–have you talked to a lot of military women? Do they generally believe that their separate bathrooms and sleeping quarters are merely silly concessions to an archaic Spanish tradition?

  2. It's not silly, and it's a practical and affordable accommodation to most straight people's modesty about being naked in the presence of strangers of the "opposite = potential-sexual-partner sex" (cf airport scanner flap) in a world where we agree to ignore or ostracize the one in six among us who are gay. But the underlying idea is simply impractical if potential sexual partner couples include pairs of the same sex, unless the implicit idea (separate quarters for gays) is that we don't care about the modesty, or likelihood of sex, among gays, only straights, which is just another kind of discrimination.

    The way I hear the unspoken subtext is fear of gayness being catching, fear of out gays lowering the barriers to coming out among closeted gays who have been denying their sexual identity to themselves, and fear of homosexual predation on straight people. The first is wrong, the second is not the military's problem, and as I read the news, the third is displacing attention due to the beam of straight male predation on women in the military towards a conjectured mote.

  3. Michael, I'm not sure what you mean by "practical". The military endures an enormous amount of trouble and expense in order to segregate male and female living quarters, presumably because "straight people's modesty" makes the alternative even more costly in terms of unit morale. The military's current policy on gays, DADT, is also costly, in that it excludes quite a few potential recruits (although Michael's one in six figure sounds a bit off to me). But if "straight people's modesty" makes the alternative even more costly (and a hit to morale that affects anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of soldiers is not to be sneezed at), then shouldn't you at least admit that your opposition to DADT is based on principle trumping practicality, not practicality trumping prejudice?

  4. It seems to me there was a plausible case for excluding out-of-closet gays from the military up to when women came into general military tasks. You could point to problems with unit cohesion, was one guy on a platoon going to try and save his lover against all odds when someone else needed help, people romancing the sergeant to get out of potato peeling duty, promotions for blow jobs – all that stuff. Those things are problematic, and you are more or less protected against them (or at least they are less visible) with a no-gays policy. Once you brought women into the military, you had to deal with romance being a possibility, as Mike notes: make rules on stay away from superiors/subordinates, willing partners, etc. And once you have done that, the case for excluding gays largely goes away.

  5. I think that the smart thing to do would be to create separate barracks. One for men, one for women, one for men who are too wimpy to deal with their hangups, and one for women who are too wimpy to deal with their hangups. And make sure that the barracks for homophobes are labeled the wimp barracks. Allow military culture to operate in its ordinary way, and the homophobe barracks will soon be empty, and the problem will soon be over.

  6. A lot of the stated concerns make more sense if you consider sex to be a predatory activity, with males preying on potential mates. Such a conception explains both female desire for separate quarters and male discomfort with the idea that there might be a male stalking them.

  7. Don't ask Don't tell was a Democrat law, that we were told was needed to save the nation.

    What? They lied?

    I don't know what lie to believe anymore.

  8. The previous problem with military homosexuality was AIDS. Back during the Reagan administration it was prevalent among homosexuals, passed frequently between their thousands of sex partners per year, and there was no test for it. Arthur Ashe, certainly wealthy enough to afford the best medical care, and still died of it, having contracted it from a contaminated blood transfusion. Military work is risky, and medical care is often stressed by the casualty rate. Transfusions sometimes come directly from another servicemember. Homosexuals providing contaminated blood was a big worry at the time, and in combat units could be a matter of life and death.

    Noone I knew minded serving with an open homosexual. We understood that death was a risk of doing business. Noone wanted to die so someone could inflict their high disease risk on servicemembers to make a point.

  9. "The previous problem with military homosexuality was AIDS."

    Which would argue for a Do Ask Do Tell policy which conservatives rejected, hence the compromise DADT law when Democrats rejected the bigotry of a total ban.

    "But if “straight people’s modesty” makes the alternative even more costly (and a hit to morale that affects anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of soldiers is not to be sneezed at) . . ."

    The same arguments could have been advanced for integration of blacks. Next.

    It has always amazed me that conservatives cannot conceive of highly disciplined adults subject to military discipline for the slightest infraction being able to keep it in their pants, but can conceive of a world where abstinence can be taught to highly undisciplined teenagers with virtually no disciplinary incentives to refrain from sexual activity.

  10. […] but can conceive of a world where abstinence can be taught to highly undisciplined teenagers with virtually no disciplinary incentives to refrain from sexual activity.

    The more honest among them admit that they expect lots of teens to "fail". It is a simple, if coarse, class sorting mechanism that they have no problem with. Upper class girls with a problem will, of course, still have access to discreet abortion.

  11. Have NASA solved the problem of the optimum sexual-preference and gender mix for Mars missions? One stable heterosexual couple and one stable homosexual couple looks about right to me – less risk than two heterosexual couples, or single-gender. Two homosexual couples of different genders would also work.

    What is the ISS for if not to get some facts on this sort of thing?

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