What Shall We Do With "Drunken Sailor" Jibes?

By Sarah Beller 05/01/13

Stung by politicians' remarks, the Aussie navy snaps that the old stereotype is untrue and insulting.

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Ancient history. Photo via

Australian Senior navy officials are outraged after politician Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition in the Australian House of Representatives, claimed that the Labor party's government was "spending like drunken sailors." The popular phrase is a throwback to the days when inebriated sailors were known to spend money indiscriminately "in bars and bordellos." "Sailors in the past were known for going ashore and getting drunk and partying," said Former Chief of the Navy, retired Vice-Admiral David Shackleton, "History tarred the navy with that term." But today's seamen and women are defending themselves against its offensive implications, which they say no longer apply. "We are not like that any more," said one Navy seamen. "It is not an image that is reflective of the current force or ideals." And according to a Naval officer: "You always find the occasional idiot, but generally speaking sailors do not behave like that." A Sydney Hotel manager, Mike Caimer, agrees that modern sailors are far more subdued and courteous. "They are very respectful when they come in here, never any problems and always very controlled," he said. "Let's be honest, they are human and they enjoy having a drink together and each other's company. But they aren't coming in here and drinking each other silly, they support us without going overboard [no pun intended]." However, even in recent years, members of the Australian navy have been known to take things "overboard." In 2009, sailors on HMAS (His/Her Majesty's Australian Ship) were found to have engaged in "predatory sexual and drunken misconduct," including wrecking two bars in Manila and engaging in a "public sex act" in China.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.