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Is The Battle Against War-Zone Sex Unwinnable?

Some employers actively discourage intimate relationships between employees. No employer seems to take this approach as far as the military.
A Canadian Press story this week spoke of the Canadian military’s “blanket ban on soldiers engaging in intimate relationships in a war zone”. The story quoted some experts calling this rule an “unwinnable fight against human nature”.
This discussion comes on the heels of the dismissal of Brigadier General Daniel Menard from duties in Afghanistan. Menard is alleged to have engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with a female soldier.
Clinical sex therapist Sue McGarvie said that soldiers “are in an incredibly difficult situation and looking for comfort and we are expecting them to be automatons”. She went on to state, “You cannot fight it: You put adults together in any situation and you’re going to have sex and intimacy”.
As adults, the reality is that many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work - the workplace is our primary venue for social interaction. Surveys have indicated that over one-half of employees have been romantically involved with a co-worker and almost one-fifth of employees met their spouse at work.
So, an employer seeking to prevent personal relationships between employees may only succeed in forcing them to be carried on in secrecy.
It is, however, expected that an employer will exercise its disciplinary authority when couples’ activities stray over into misconduct. This may be especially noticeable upon a breakdown in the relationship, when residual hostilities can be destructive to workplace harmony.
The most important context in which employers seek to regulate office relationships is between supervisors and subordinates. It is well established that the employer has a legitimate interest in knowing about, and taking reasonable steps to control or prevent, these situations.
The problem with the supervisor-subordinate romance is the power imbalance between the two. The prospect that the supervisor may abuse his or her authority in the course of the relationship is of great concern to employers.
For example, a supervisor who is in the position of assessing the partner’s performance, adjusting his or her salary, or making decisions about promotions is a supervisor who is simply not able to act objectively. And there is always the prospect that this position of power will be used in a negative way when the relationship ends.
Regardless, the blanket sex ban applicable to members of the military seems particularly harsh.
Our soldiers are expected to live in close quarters, in remote locations, away from home for months at a time. They are placed in the most stressful of circumstances and they are largely confined to a base along with their co-workers. In this setting, can we expect them to be celibate?
Even the notorious Captain Bligh (perhaps history’s worst boss, military or non-military – anyone up for a keelhauling?) allowed his crew members a degree of sexual freedom during their visit to Tahiti in 1778. (Admittedly, the subsequent “mutiny on the Bounty” may be a prime example of why sex and war aren’t a good mix).
It seems that the “fraternization” rule is considered necessary to uphold discipline. That may be the case, but even military organizations need to keep up with the times and it seems anachronistic to adhere to the notion that adults can’t do their job and have sex (though, perhaps, not at the same time).
Even the use of the term, “fraternization” suggests a degree of impropriety or unprofessionalism, as if there is something ethically wrong with engaging in relations with co-workers. It seems like an odd view of people who are entrusted with our national security and with the operation of military equipment worth (in some cases) millions of dollars.
Maybe our armed forces personnel can also be trusted with forming and regulating their own social relationships. What was it that Pierre Trudeau once said about the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation?
Robert Smithson is a lawyer in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” columns, log onto