Affairs in the Military
by Peggy Vaughan

The military's written code of conduct prohibiting extramarital affairs is in direct conflict with several powerful and pervasive unwritten Codes of Secrecy. The code for having affairs is "Never tell. If questioned, deny it. If caught, say as little as possible." The code for reacting to others' affairs is "Ignore them, deny them, or condemn them." The military's own unwritten code of secrecy is "What happens on deployment stays on deployment."

While the formal message may be, "Don't do it," the informal message is "Don't get caught." Unless this gap is addressed by the Pentagon's legal officers who are assigned to propose clarifications to the rules, their efforts will perpetuate an inherent unfairness in the system. Lt. Kelly Flinn and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston were penalized not because they had affairs, but because they got caught. Applying the standards of "good order" and "discredit" still doesn't create fairness, since "lying" only becomes a possibility once an affair is exposed—leaving the basic message intact: "Don't get caught."

The hypocrisy in the military is reflective of a larger problem that affects us all. If we were to penalize or oust every person in the military, the government, or corporate America who has an affair, our society as we know it would collapse. Monogamy is not the norm; that is a myth. According to the monogamy myth, most marriages are monogamous and a failure to be monogamous is a deviation from the norm—thus a strictly personal failure to be condemned and punished.

In fact, affairs occur in a large percentage of marriages and happen to all kinds of people in all walks of life. No one is immune from having affairs disrupt their lives or the lives of those they care about. This doesn't "excuse" a person for having an affair, but it does help their spouse overcome the shame they feel when viewing it only as the failure of their spouse or their relationship. It's time to face the reality that affairs are not just a personal issue; they're a societal issue as well.

According to the monogamy myth, society as a whole is supportive of monogamy and of people's efforts to remain monogamous. While every poll shows that most people believe affairs are wrong (and we publicly condemn those who have affairs), our support of monogamy is only lip service. In fact, we are jointly responsible for creating a fertile environment for affairs by participating in the kinds of behaviors that actually contribute to the problem.

How do we contribute to a climate that promotes affairs?
1) By our obsession with sex as reflected in entertainment, fashion and advertising;
2) by our fascination, titillation, and glorification of affairs;
3) by our conditioning to be secretive and deceptive about sex;
4) by our participation in the secrecy that makes it easier for a person to engage in affairs and to avoid dealing with the consequences—or even to seriously contemplate the consequences.

We can't expect those who are having affairs to be more responsible in their actions as long as we all collude in the secrecy that serves to protect them. We need to acknowledge our joint responsibility for creating a climate of secrecy that provides protection for a variety of sexual behaviors, including both extramarital affairs and sexual harassment. Neither the military nor the general public can adequately address either of these issues until we acknowledge the hypocrisy surrounding the way we deal with issues related to sex. Accurately defining the problem is the first step toward any hope of solving it.

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