Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Crossing the Line: Sex, Power, Justice, and the U.S. Navy at the Equator

Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Crossing the Line: Sex, Power, Justice, and the U.S. Navy at the Equator

Article excerpt


When my father came home from a seven-month Gulf War cruise in 1991, he told me about his participation in a bizarre ceremony when his ship crossed the equator. He talked of men receiving unusual haircuts, being paddled and insulted, being smeared with garbage and old food, and, most curiously, of a number of the men on the ship dressing up as women for a beauty pageant. He showed me photographs of men covered from head to toe in filth and being beaten with pieces of fire hose, and other pictures of men flashing massive false breasts to a crowd. As intrigued as I was, I was not surprised at the content of the ceremony. Having grown up a Navy brat, living near or in large Navy communities my entire life, I had grown used to the antics of Naval personnel. I had no problem picturing many of the Navy sailors and officers whom I knew participating in and laughing at the abuse and delighting in the garbage. And despite, or perhaps because of, many of the men's beliefs that women and homosexuals had no place in the Navy, I was not at all surprised at their amusement and willingness to participate in the transvestite pageant. Inexplicably, it just seemed to fit.

Yet, considering the accusations of homophobia, sexism, and sexual harassment that have arisen over the past twenty years, how and why would these same men would willingly submit to being spanked and straddled by other men? What was so important about this ceremony that would make sailors shave their legs and don false breasts and teddies? More importantly, why did I automatically interpret these actions as being normal for this group of people?

The Navy's resistance to women in its ranks is second only to its resistance to homosexuals. Until 1991, women were denied the opportunity to fly fighter jets in the Navy, and only within the past few decades have women been able to sail on ships previously staffed only by men. (1) Where other militaries have found ways to accommodate women and homosexuals in their ranks, it has been a slow and violent process in the U.S. (2) There seems to be no strong logical argument behind the extreme reluctance of the Navy to permit women equal rights, or to permit homosexuals any rights at all. (3) As one gay comedian stated in response to military concerns over the ability of gays to serve, "... what does the military think? That the gays are so sexual that they can't be trusted? What? In the heat of battle they're going to want to have sex with the enemy? `I couldn't shoot him, captain--he was gorgeous!' I don't think so." (4)

In examining the Crossing the Line (or "Shellback") ceremony, it becomes more apparent how intimately these issues are interwoven in the ritual. Through ritual play, ideas about gender, sexuality, and power are acted out. Although this is only one ritual, and one that not all Navy personnel participate in, it does offer one view into how political issues in the Navy are played out and resolved.

A. The Great Fraternal Order of the Raging Main

The Navy ceremony of "Crossing the Line" is a tradition which originated over four hundred years ago, and which continues in strong form today. (5) It is a vivid and unexpectedly sanctioned Naval event in which the uninitiated Naval personnel who have never crossed the equator pass through a series of tests which induct them into the realm of the initiated. It is a brutal and sometimes dangerous transformation. Members are beaten, yelled at, covered in garbage and filth, and made to perform denigrating tasks. Yet the ceremony not only continues, but is fiercely defended by many of its participants, including all the Navy members whom I interviewed.

What is so fascinating about the ritual is the power that it wields. This power comes in several forms. Internally, the drama of the ceremony aids in the manifestation and affirmation of deeply rooted beliefs about gender roles, sex and domination. The drama itself contains much power, as the brutality, beatings and humiliation are not only permitted, but encouraged as tools of transformation. …

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