The Marines Are Looking for a Few Good Horny Men

<i> John Gagnon is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. </i>

The discovery that some Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have been seduced from the line of duty has tapped a widely held fantasy about the sexual needs of men, particularly those in uniform far from the comforts of home.

Only one of my friends has taken the hard line. “Treason is treason,” he argued, “and should be rewarded by the rope.” But he is a remarkable exception--a leftover from another, more astringent, age. All the others, including political conservatives, have been able to find some extenuating circumstance, often of the kind cited by a correspondent for the New York Post who wrote, “Anyone who has served in the armed services knows that sexual activity is constantly on the mind, and, if conditions permit, pursued.” I take this to be, on the whole, an observation about men in the military with which many would agree. My question is: Why do so many people agree?

Until the very recent past, even the idea of asking the question of why we believed that men in general, and men in uniform in particular, are in a state of constant sexual frenzy would have been met with incredulity. As one woman told Dr. Kinsey in dismissing the need for his research on men: “Everyone knows that men are just a bunch of leering, prancing goats.” This view that inside every man there lurks a sexual beast is shared by many religionists, some sociobiologists and a few feminists. Indeed, many everyday folks hold the view that men’s sexual urges can be diluted only by marriage or by friendly feminine presences such as mothers, sisters and girlfriends. Urges that are not diluted need to be absorbed by prostitutes or other morally suspect women; the undiluted or unabsorbed remainder results in sex crime and violence.

While few men, even when in the military, are actually in danger of being overcome by rampant sexual needs, nearly all men can recall occasions when they did something sexual that seemed to be the result of an “uncontrollable urge.” When most men remember such incidents, particularly those that were morally equivocal, they often attribute their conduct to sexual impulses that burst the bounds of constraint after long periods of deprivation or as the result of undue provocation by women. In many cases these episodes are further justified by disingenuous references to drink.


Other men, perhaps sensitized by feminism, may recall similar sexual occasions with some shame, recognizing them as moments when their fears about their masculinity ran well ahead of decency and good sense rather than as the result of unbridled provoked or drunken lust.

These recognitions should help to subvert our unexamined beliefs in men’s uncontrollable sexual nature and turn our attention to the ways in which becoming a man in this society demands a certain sexual style. Marine Corps manhood is the purest example of a national state of mind in which the real man “kicks ass.” The Marines proclaim that they are, as the poster for the corps that was received by my stepson in the last few days reads, “Tough and proud of it.” The camouflaged man in the poster carries a climbing rope and an automatic weapon. He is a virtuoso of technical manhood. What is overtly represented by this poster is a man who is capable of disciplined violence in battle; what is covertly offered is an undisciplined masculinity when on leave.

As a consequence, many young men when dressed up in uniforms regularly participate in excesses of drink, aggression and copulation as they seek to conform to a uniformed culture that is more macho than any individual within it. The leadership in the military routinely tolerates these patterns of conduct, just as they shutter their eyes to the bright-lights districts that are outside the gates of U.S. military bases, particularly overseas. The lecture on sexually transmitted diseases and the omnipresent bar girls are equal parts of a common syndrome of manhood. What AIDS will do to the casualness of getting “a dose” is as yet unclear. Condoms may no longer be only for sissies.

The young sailors whom I saw walking down the Pike in Long Beach during World War II were looking for drink, sex and tattoos. Yet their swagger covered up their real fears of wounds and death, their sexual innocence and their provincialism, as well as their wish to become a man by becoming one of the boys. Psychoanalysts to the contrary, such a desire is not homosexual, but more precisely homosocial. It is the desire to measure up to and please other men in uniform that is the main theme of American manhood.


So it was with the Marines in Moscow. They were taken in by the idea that many people share--that they were particularly sexually needy because they were Marines. What neither they, nor those who supervise them, have yet learned is that sexual performance is not a necessary sign of manhood, and that toughness is not a measure of smarts. Erections not only do not have consciences, they don’t have any brains, either.