YOU know what really stinks?" the young Navy officer asked me.
He pushed aside his third scotch and leaned across the table in a chain restaurant near the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va., where the Tailhook prosecutions have crept along for more than a year and where he was one of the dozens accused of "conduct unbecoming."
"What about all the female officers who were going wild at Tailhook? How come they haven't been prosecuted?"
"You know, wearing sexy clothes, dancing like a bunch of party girls, getting their legs shaved in the suites."
He lowered his voice. Some, he continued darkly, even had sex with other officers.
"How come they aren't being prosecuted for that? This whole thing stinks of a double standard."
The "double standard" lament comes up repeatedly with Tailhookers. How come the female officers got to "go wild," and not the guys?
At first look, this seems a ludicrous argument. Assault, not partying, was the offense that prompted protest from the female officers who attended the annual convention of naval aviators in Las Vegas in 1991.
Lieut. Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot, blew the whistle on Tailhook because a crowd of men formed a gantlet down a hallway and tore at her clothes, grabbed her breasts and seized her buttocks with such force she was hoisted airborne.
The dozens of other women attacked in the hallway said their fellow officers hurled them to the floor, yanked off their underwear and molested them.
K? This was not fun and games; many women who fought back only
met with fiercer assaults and epithets like "whore" and "bitch."
Perpetuating the confusion between assault and mere bad taste may be the only lasting achievement of the Tailhook affair. The prosecution stumbled to a close last week with the dismissal of the three final cases that were pending court-martial and the resignation of Lieutenant Coughlin.
In the end, she's the only junior None of the 28 junior officers -- and none of the original 43 men who faced administrative action -- was charged with assaulting or molesting women.
officer who is out of a job.
Sure, the investigation embarrassed the top brass and cut short some careers. Earlier this week, Adm. Frank Kelso, the Navy's top officer, requested early retirement so the Navy could close "this difficult chapter."
But the 28 junior officers actually disciplined were censured for these charges only: "indecent exposure," "conduct unbecoming an officer" and making "false official statements."
In other words, they were reprimanded for making half-naked buffoons of themselves and lying about it later.
None of the 28 junior officers -- and none of the original 43 men who faced administrative action -- was charged with assaulting or molesting women. They got in trouble for such sins as streaking and dropping their pants.
By focusing on the officers' adolescent antics, the Navy not only missed the point; it reinforced the same false message that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years: Advocates of the rights of women are really just prudes, anti-sex.
Feminism, we hear once again, is just a euphemism for puritanism.
Ironically, the prudes waggling their fingers at the male Tailhook exhibitionists weren't female officers or feminists; they were men from the military establishment. It was the military that granted immunity to ringleaders of the gantlet so that they could testify against a bunch of streakers.
Tellingly, in his 111-page ruling last week dismissing the final three Tailhook cases, the Navy judge, Capt. William T. Vest Jr., focused not on the violence against women but on Tailhook's "reputation for wild partying, heavy drinking and lewd behavior."
When he suggested that sex, not assault, was on trial here, the young accused officer I talked to had a point.
If there's anything to gain from the hash made of the Tailhook investigation, perhaps it's the (slim) possibility that the bawdy officers who were disciplined might feel more empathy for women -- who, after all, have always faced censure for exhibitions of lustiness.
The men might remember that if there is a "double standard" at play here, that shoe is generally on the other, feminine foot.
If they don't like how the shoe feels, maybe they won't insist that women wear it.
Susan Faludi is writing a book about masculinity in America.