Wherever you have a military, you will have sex. Whether it’s an occupied city, an encampment in a theater of war, or a military base here in the United States, anywhere you have a large population of young men, stationed away from their girlfriends and wives, you will soon have a booming sex trade – and the requisite STI outbreak. So how has the United States military dealt with this particular problem facing soldier health? For this episode in our anniversary series on sex, we’re talking about sex, sexually transmitted infections, and the US military. 

Transcript:

Sex & Soldiers: Combatting Sexually Transmitted Infection in the US Military

Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Sarah: In June 1863, the city of Nashville had a problem on its hands. Well, actually, it had two. Wait – I mean, three. Okay, let’s straighten this out. Nashville’s first problem was that it fell to the Union Army in the summer of 1862, and remained under federal occupation for more or less the rest of the war. This meant martial law and a sizeable federal military presence – not ideal for a Confederate city. Occupation and military law creates all sorts of tensions between the army and civilians, and Nashville was no exception. Problem number 2 was that – like any other place where armies lingered for more than a few weeks – the city was absolutely overrun with sex workers catering to lonely soldiers. The prostitutes occupied a district “two blocks wide and four blocks long” called Smokey Row, and one soldier recalled that “no man could be a soldier unless he had gone through Smokey Row” but that “Smokey Row killed more soldiers than the war.” 

Marissa: Problem number 3 came directly from problem number 2 – the booming sex work business resulted in a boom in reports of venereal disease. Brigadier General RS Granger, the Union officer overseeing the occupation of Nashville, was according to later records “daily and almost hourly beset” by Union medical officers that their soldiers were plagued by syphilis and gonorrhea. Infections threatened troop strength and caused lasting health problems for soldiers – and the rampant sex trade was a threat to good ‘moral character’ of the army. It was clear to federal authorities that cleaning up the city –specifically, cleaning up the sex trade – was a “military necessity.” So rather than focusing on, say, grand military plans, the federal authorities in Nashville had to come up with a plan to fix their prostitution-and-STI problem. 

Sarah: We’ll come back to the Nashville problem soon – because believe me, you want to hear this story – but I wanted to start with it because it’s a perfect illustration of a great truth: wherever you have a military, you will have sex. Whether an occupied city, an encampment in a theater of war, or a military base here in the United States, anywhere you have a large population of young men, stationed away from their girlfriends and wives, you will soon have a booming sex trade – and the requisite STI outbreak. So how has the United States military dealt with this particular problem facing soldier health? For this episode in our anniversary series on sex, we’re talking about sex, sexually transmitted infections, and the US military. 

I’m Sarah 

And I’m Marissa 

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG  

Sarah: We’ll swing back around to the story of Nashville’s prostitution/syphilis/gonorrhea problem, but I actually want to give a broader overview of how the United States military has been affected by and tried to combat sexually transmitted infections. And just a heads up about language: today, we typically call these kinds of ailments “sexually transmitted infections.” Calling something like gonorrhea an infection rather than a disease is just more accurate, since it can typically be cleared up with a round of antibiotics. An infection is a first step in a disease, and since today we have effective treatments, it’s less stigmatizing to think of them as what they are – short-term infections. However, some STI’s can cause disease – a human papilloma virus (HPV) infection can cause cervical cancer, which is definitely a disease. But neither of those terms existed for the time periods we’ll be covering. Instead, these infections were usually called venereal diseases, a term that was derived from its association with the goddess Venus, goddess of love and sex. While ‘venereal’ at its essence meant “sexually transmitted,” it also carried moral overtones of lasciviousness and sinful, uncontrolled lust. We’ll be using the term venereal diseases (or VD) throughout, but it’s only to replicate the language used by people during the time periods we’re discussing. 

Marissa: We’ll also have to use different language when it comes to selling sex. Today, the preferred term is “sex work,” which legitimizes selling sex as a real form of labor, rather than a moralized identity. But in the past, people who sold sex were heavily stigmatized and the words used to describe them reflected their scorned position in society: whore, prostitute, hooker. In our Nashville example, they were even called “Cyprians,” which was a euphemistic term that referred to inhabitants of the Greek island of Cyprus, where the cult of Aphrodite (who the Romans called Venus) made its home. So we’ll sometimes use terminology to refer to sex workers in the past, even though we understand that most people agree that they’re stigmatizing and inappropriate today. 

Sarah: When I say that wherever you have an army, you have sexually transmitted infections, I mean it, going (in American history) all the way back to the Revolutionary War. After the Revolution, the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia compiled statistics about the health of the American troops. Diseases included dropsy, eye infections, respiratory infections, and dropsy (which is a word for edema, usually associated with heart problems) but a full 9% of cases were of – you guessed it – venereal disease. At the army hospital in New Windsor, New York, in the summer of 1782, 38 of 225 hospitalized soldiers were there suffering from venereal disease, which seems to have been the largest single diagnosis in the hospital at the time. And apparently George Washington himself complained that his troop strength was suffering during the Continental Army’s New York campaign during the summer of 1776 because of the ravages of venereal disease. In the late 18th century, there were no real treatments, except for mercury for syphilis, as Averill talked about in her syphilis episodes a while back, of course. Men who were suffering couldn’t just receive quick treatment and return to the front lines. In an attempt to discourage men from getting disease in the first place, the Continental Congress agreed to fine officers and soldiers seeking hospitalization for venereal diseases – $10 for officers and $4 for soldiers, which was no small sum. (According to one inflation calculator, the $10 fine would be something like $300 today – although that’s really based on estimates.) 

Marissa: While we don’t usually think about the Lewis and Clark expedition as a military operation, it was undertaken by the Corps of Discovery, a specially commissioned military unit within the US Army by President Thomas Jefferson to undertake an exploration of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and lands beyond. It was headed up by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, both veterans of the United States Army, and filled with 30 enlistedmen and five noncommissioned officers. And like just about every other military operation ever, it was also marked by sex and, of course, venereal disease. As Thomas Lowry so succinctly put it at the beginning of his book on sex and the expedition, “Sex is the long-ignored theme of Lewis and Clark and their immortal journey. Sex, and venereal disease.” The expedition did not have a doctor, so all medical concerns were treated by the leaders of the expedition, Lewis and Clark, themselves. They were prepared – they carried with them urethral syringes and a supply of mercury to treat syphilis – suggesting that they were pragmatic about the fact that sex was obviously going to happen on their perilous transcontinental adventure. (Actually, pretty good planning!) As they did with nearly everything they did and encountered on their journey, Lewis and Clark diligently recorded each instance of disease they encountered and treated. If you do a key word search for “pox” in their digitized journals, there’s instance after instance of journal entries like this: January 31, 1806, “discovered that McNeal (one of the privates) had the pox, gave him medicine.” 

Charles Marion Russell, Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Lewis and Clark’s journals, along with the journals written by other members of the Corps, are full of references to the group’s sexual adventures and their consequences. The members of the expedition were getting ‘the pox’ by having sex with Native American women along their journey. Now, we need to keep in mind that the sources that we have to be able to tell this history are all written by the white American men who traveled with Lewis and Clark – so their descriptions of Native women are super problematic. Take this, for instance, written by Corps member, Sergeant Patrick Gass: “If this brief Journal should happen to be preserved, and ever thought worthy of appearin gin print, some readers will perhaps expect that, after our long friendly intercourse with these Indians … we ought to be prepared now … to give some account of the fair sex of Missouri, and entertain them with narratives of feats of love as well as arms…..It may be observed generally that chastity is not very highly esteemed by these people, and that the severe and loathsome effects of certain French principles are no uncommon among them. The fact is, that the women are generally considered an article of traffic and indulgencies are sold at a very moderate price. As proof, I will just mention that for an old tobacco box, one of our men was granted the honour of passing a night with the daughter of the head-chief of the Mandan nation.” 

Marissa: It’s hard to know what they real dynamics of these relations were. Gass clearly suggests that Native Americans had loose sexual morals – he euphemistically says they have “certain French principles,” a jab at the apparent licentiousness of the French. (For more on that, see Averill’s episode on le petit mort!) And that licentiousness meant – at least to Gass – that they were plagued with the “severe and loathsome effects” of those principles – ie, venereal disease. We also need to remember that the journals were all edited for publication, which meant they had to be made acceptable by early 19th century standards. Gass’s reference to Native American sex work was made to fit a narrative that was common in adventure novels (the tempting local women) while also making it clear that the women were bad ones. Lewis and Clark’s official journals were also edited so that they ‘stuck to the facts,’ meaning that they often downplayed the more salacious bits of the story. Nevertheless, if you pare away the editing, the journals are packed with references to sex and STIs in between details about flora and fauna. Take, for instance, this entry from July 2, 1806: “Nothing worthy of notice transpired in the course of the day. Goodrich and McNeal are both very unwell with the pox, which they contracted last winter with the Chinook women. This forms my inducement principally for taking them to the falls of the Missouri, where during an interval of rest, they can use the mercury freely. I found two species of native clover here, the one with a very narrow small leaf and a pale red flower, the other nearly as luxuriant as our red clover with a white flower the left and blume of the latter are proportionably large.”  

Sarah: It’s also hard to make sense of the sexual relationships between Corps members and Native women because of the huge cultural differences – both those between the Corps and the Natives, and between people in the early 19th century and us today. While it might be easy for us to think about the relationships between white Corpsmen and Native women as obviously problematic in terms of power, especially in light of the American history of genocide perpetrated against Native peoples, it seems that at the time, we also need to consider the belief systems of the tribes the Corps encountered.  Historian Brad Tennant has suggested that some tribes, like the Great Plain tribes of the Arikara and Mandan, had spiritual beliefs that made sex between Native women and the white travelers beneficial. Tennant has argued that women were understood as a kind of vessel, who could transfer power from one male sexual partner to another – meaning that she could transfer power from a member of the Corps to her own husband. There’s some evidence that Arikara and Mandan people were particularly interested in York, a black man enslaved by William Clark and brought along on the voyage. In 1810, when William Clark was interviewed by banker Nicholas Biddle (you might recognize his name from the infamous Jacksonian Bank War), Clark told a story about how an Arikara man, eager to acquire some of York’s apparent animalistic power, offered him his wife for sex. The man stood guard by the door of his home while York and his wife had sex to ensure they could complete the act without interruption. 

Marissa: The Corps of Discovery’s travails with sexually transmitted infections had an unexpected long-term impact. While we’ve always had a general idea of the route the Corps took, based on their journals and maps, the Corps’ heavy use of mercury-based medications meant that the men left a literal trail as they travelled. As the men injected mercury into their penises and swallowed mercury-laden calomel (a 19th century cure-all for intestinal distress), they subsequently filled their latrines with traces of the element. And since mercury doesn’t degrade, they left a mercury trail of their movements across the west, that archaeologists are able to follow today – which means we have a much clearer picture of their movements now than we ever have, all thanks to penis-mercury and poop pits! 

But anyway – enough about Lewis and Clark and their horny travels. Let’s get back to Nashville and their prostitution problem. (We’re sure there was lots of STIs during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War but there’s only so much we can cover here, folks!) 

Sarah: Right, back to Nashville. When we left that story, Brigadier General Granger was grappling with the “military necessity” of cleaning up the sex work in the city and dealing with the problem posed by the syphilis and gonorrhea outbreak. He had good reason to be concerned about the outbreak of STIs. A case of gonorrhea or syphilis often left a man unfit for duty, and the treatments often took a soldier entirely out of the fighting force for days or even weeks. One surgeon in the 115th Pennsylvania described his days-long treatment regimen for gonorrhea like this: “injecting a solution of chlorate of potash, one drachm in eight ounces, every hour for twelve successive hours, and then gradually ceasing its use during the next two or three days by prolonging the interval between each injection.” This was a lengthy treatment that took a great deal of a doctor’s time, as well as taking a soldier out of commission, affecting troop strength. The Union Army wouldn’t be able to hang on to Nashville – already a difficult task – if their troops were all hospitalized for venereal diseases. Something had to be done to stop the rates of infection and protect the federal force occupying the Confederate city. 

Marissa: Granger’s solution was to turn to Lt Col George Spalding, provost marshal of Nashville. (Provost Marshals were essentially the Civil War military police or “mp’s.”) Spalding figured that there couldn’t be any more prostitution if there weren’t any prostitutes. (This makes me think of that meme of the guy tapping his head like “ah, figured it out!”) So in early July, 1863, Lt Col Spalding orchestrated an effort to gather up the sex workers in Nashville. First, he issued a general order required that the sex workers get out of the city. Then, two days later, he requisitioned a steamboat named – get this – the Idahoe to transport all of the women out of the city. According to the Nashville Daily Press, “squads of soldiers were engaged in …. heaping furniture out of the various dens, and then tumbling their disconsolate owners after.” Apparently, they weren’t very careful in which women they rounded up, because the newspaper also reported that several “respectable ladies were unceremoniously marched off.” But overall, the newspaper concluded, “this course toward bad women will have a salutatory effect upon the morals of the soldiers.” The Nashville Dispatch agreed, bidding the women adieu as they sailed out into the Cumberland River: “Wayward sisters, go in peace.” 

Civil War era cartoon

Sarah: The idea was to send the steamboat to Louisville, Kentucky, where they would offload the women. But several days later, when they approached Louisville, the military authorities in that city wouldn’t let them disembark. Instead, they suggested that the boat continue up the Ohio River to Cincinnati. On the way, they were able to release at least some of the women, who were taken off the boat by friends and supporters in Newport, Kentucky, but most of the women were sort of trapped. When they arrived in Cincinnati, it will probably come as no surprise that they were again denied entry. With nowhere else to go, and after floating around with women who were effectively being held, against their will, with no writ of habeas corpus, authorities in the War Department intervened and directed the Idahoe to return to Nashville. The women were released, and the captain of the Idahoe was pissed: his boat, and its reputation, was trashed – it was now generally known as the “Floating Whorehouse.” (Eventually, the captain received $5000 from the government as compensation for his lost income.) In total, the women had been floating around the Cumberland and Ohio rivers for nearly a month. 

Marissa: During that time, something else happened in Nashville – their sex work problem didn’t entirely go away. The Provost Marshal and police had rounded up, it turned out, only the white sex workers, leaving behind the smaller population of black women. When the white women were shipped out, the Nashville Daily Press and Nashville Dispatch both reported that more black women, including contraband women seeking refuge in the Union occupied city, flocked to Nashville and set up their own trade. The Dispatch angrily railed that “unless the aggravated curse of lechery as it exists among the negresses of the town is destroyed by rigid military or civil mandates, or the indiscriminate expulsion of the guilty sex, the ejectment of the white class will turn out to have been productive of the sin it was intended to eradicate. No city has been more shamefully abused by the conduct of its unchaste female population, white or black, than has Nashville for the past eighteen months. We trust that, while in the humor of ridding our town of libidinous white women, General Granger will dispose of the hundreds of black ones who are making our fair city a Gomorrah.” 

Sarah: Either way, once the white women were returned to Nashville, Granger had to come up with a Plan B. Kicking the women out clearly had not worked – and the idea of constantly policing women or even arresting soldiers as ‘johns’ seemed impossible. So instead, they tried a different approach: instead of doubling down on criminalization, they decided to just … legalize sex work. But how to stop the rampant spread of disease? The answer was regulation. Women who practiced sex work had to receive a license to operate from the military authorities in the city, which required they give their address to facilitate tracking. The woman also had to consent to weekly medical exams. If a woman was free of venereal disease and was generally healthy, they were given a health certificate and allowed to conduct business, though they had to pay a fifty cent weekly tax. That tax went to pay for a hospital (I’m not sure whether this was run by the Army Medical Department, but I assume so) where women who failed their medical exams would receive treatment. According to the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 300 women were registered in January 1864, and by the following June (one year later) that number had been raised to 456, with an additional 50 or so black women. The general feeling was that this experiment was a success. The MSHWR recorded that “under these regulations, a marked improvement was speedily noticed in the manner and appearance of the women. When the inspections were first enforced, many were exceedingly filthy in their persons and apparel and obscene and coarse in their language, but this soon gave place to cleanliness and propriety.” And while the occurrence of STIs didn’t disappear in the federal forces in Tennessee, it did seem to improve, and the MSHWR recorded that most new cases were not traceable to Nashville. 

Marissa: The story of sex work in Civil War Nashville is interesting not just because of the idea of a ship full of prostitutes floating around in the Cumberland River, but because it shows us a great deal about the dilemma the US military faces (then, throughout the 20th century, right up to today) between policing and accepting sexuality. In the Nashville example, the federal military authorities found that policing didn’t work all that well – even when they’d gotten the white women temporarily out of town, the sex work vacuum was immediately filled with black women. What ultimately worked in Nashville was accepting that the sex trade wasn’t going anywhere, because women would keep offering their services, but also because soldiers really wanted to make use of those services. While the officials involved in the Nashville experiment felt like this was an unprecedented event, we know it really wasn’t: in fact, at nearly the same time in Great Britain, the Contagious Diseases Act also required medical examinations of prostitutes catering to the military. But the other thing we see in the Nashville experiment is the assumption that the problematic party was not the soldiers being diagnosed with venereal disease, but instead the women the soldiers were having sex with. 

License of Anna Johnson, Nov 24, 1863 | National Archives and Records Administration

Sarah: It should come as no surprise that it was this misogynist aspect of the Nashville experiment that stuck around in later military attempts to control venereal disease rather than legalization and regulation. For example, not unlike the women of Civil War era Nashville, historian Marilyn Hegarty’s book Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II relates the history of thousands of women who were arrested on morals charges across the United States during the second world war – many of whom had never done sex work or had any venereal diseases. Instead, they were labeled “patriotutes,” or women who demonstrated their support for the troops by having sex with soldiers. Other WWII nicknames for these ‘loose’ women were “victory girls,” “khaki-wackies,” and “good-time Charlottes.” According to Hegarty, there was a sort of elision between the prostitution and promiscuity to mean more or less the same thing – even when women weren’t actually being particularly promiscuous. I’ll quote her here: “The figure of the ‘patriotute’ embodies such a paradox. For the authorities, she symbolized threatening female sexuality, the patriot and the prostitute, the good and bad female, inseparable.” Such women were dangerous to the maintenance of a healthy fighting force – a 1940 study based on routine blood tests conducted by the Selective Service on men as they registered for the draft showed that 6% of draftees were ultimately rejected because of venereal disease. But in such cases, infection rates were not interpreted as a failing of male sexuality, but of the threat of unchecked female sexuality. The men who tested out were simply sent home, but the United States Public Health Service was called in to do contract tracing to find the women behind the infections, often resulting in forced quarantines. Left unchecked, it was diseased women who had the potential not only to weaken the military, but also the male population doing critical domestic war work.

Marissa: But while patriotutes were understood as a threat, women’s sexuality was also interpreted as necessary to the war effort. In the Nashville experiment, there was sort of a begrudging acceptance that sex was going to happen – but during World War II, it wasn’t just begrudging, it was a requirement for good morale. If you know anything about the culture of the US militaries during WWII, or if you’ve seen Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan or even played a WWII video game, you know that pin up girls, cheesecake photographs, and other sexualized images of women (especially celebrities) played a huge role in soldier morale. Particularly popular among GIs was actress Veronica Lake, famous for her glamourous, shining, wavy hair that often covered one eye in a very sexy way. 

Sarah: Lake was so popular and so well-known for her gorgeous hair that Life Magazine featured her in a photo essay to demonstrate the ways that women might need to change their beauty routines when doing wartime industrial work. One photograph showed Lake’s shiny locks wrapped up on the bit of a drill press, her sexy red lips parted in mock pain and concern. But what’s funny about this is that the photographers had no idea who drill presses worked, so they accidentally photographed her hair wrapped around it the wrong way – meaning that if it was actually running, her hair would just run off of the bit instead of posing any danger. This did not go unnoticed by Life’s readers, who wrote such bemused letters to the editor as this: “Everyone knows the effect Veronica Lake has on soldiers, sailors, and marines, but it is hard to believe that she could make a drill press run backward!” 

Marissa: Beautiful women were such a powerful motivating force for soldiers that actresses were also quite literally called into patriotic service. The Hollywood Canteen, for instance, was a dance club in Hollywood founded by actors John Garfield and Bette Davis. Almost every night, up to two thousand GIs – most of whom were in California on route to being deployed to the bloody Pacific Theater – would pack the Canteen, where they enjoyed free food and drinks (no booze!) and danced with starlets. While big stars like Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable and Hedy Lamarr made appearances, most of the workers at the Canteen were hopeful young actresses on contract with a big studio, and thus beholden to their demands. Dancing and charming America’s fresh-faced GIs became these starlets’ job night after night after night almost entirely because they had pretty faces, perky breasts, and wasp waists. This was a kind of war work – as Anne Helen Peterson has written, these women “weren’t lying in bunkers or taking bullets …. but they were performing an ideological public service, completely gratis, that equaled any number of propaganda posters, training films, or Victory Gardens.” It wasn’t just starlets, though – the United Service Organization or USO recruited beautiful young women to work as hostesses at USO service clubs around the United States. And while USO hostesses were certainly not encouraged to actually have sex with lonely young men, they were required to use their bodies to, according to historian Meghan Winchell, “tantalize and comfort” soldiers with dancing and companionship. Women’s sexuality was simultaneously integral to soldier morale and dangerous to soldier health. 

Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth serving food to soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen New York World, Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Marissa: The threat posed by such women was apparently so serious that in some states, authorities arrested so many women on morals charges that they ran out of space in jails. Eliot Ness, who had become famous fighting the Chicago mob during Prohibition and was now head of the Social Protection Division, an agency tasked with preventing and policing venereal disease around military bases, suggested that women be transferred from crowded jails to former Civilian Conservation Corps camps. Those camps – which had housed work crews of young men employed by the federal government under the New Deal to do environmental conservation work – had been handed over to the US Army when the program ended. But they were literally camps, in the woods in very rural areas and typically without many comforts for detained women. 

Sarah: The federal government also fought prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted infections through the passage of the May Act in 1941. This law made both prostitution and any kind of sex solicitation near a military base a federal crime. The May Act was first used in May 1942 in – get this – Tennessee. (What is going on in Tennessee?!)  A year later, Helen Hironomus, the warden of the Federal Reformatory for Woman in Alderson, West Virginia where the first May Act convicts were sent, wrote a study on the women. They tended to be a “flashily dressed, gay and reckless young woman with a certain amount of sophistication … or a homesick, bewildered young girl expecting to marry her sweetheart” but abandoned. Nearly all the women came from poverty and had moved to the area around the base, “ill-equipped for the rapid whirl of soldiers, easy money, beer taverns, and freedom from drudgery, drabness, and monotony.” Moreover, almost all the women had scored between “dull-normal and imbecile” on IQ tests, making them exactly the kinds of promiscuous, immoral, genetically-inferior women who posed the biggest eugenic threat to the nation. Very few of them actually had a sexually transmitted infection, but it hardly mattered – they had the potential to dangerously undermine good and moral order for the men tasked with saving the world from fascism.

Marissa: So on one hand, women’s sexuality was critical to maintaining a happy, committed, and motivated fighting force. But at the exact same time, women’s sexuality posed a serious threat both troop strength and the strength of the male American workforce. You can see the way that the US military struggled to balance on the fine line between good girls and bad girls in some of their anti-VD educational films. These films, made under the direction of the War Department, were essentially sex-ed for soldiers and sailors in hopes of preventing sexually transmitted infection outbreaks. There’s a particularly great one called “Pick Up,” which tells the story of a soldier who has a one night stand to celebrate the fact that he’s headed home on a two week furlough – even though he’s headed back to his librarian girlfriend. The girl he convinces to have sex with him is young, lovely and shy, just “a kid.” Nevertheless, he contracts gonorrhea and is subjected to a stern lecture from the base’s medical officers, loses his furlough, and gets shipped out to the Pacific. Womp womp. It’s very clear that even though the soldier pursued the ‘pick up,’ the girl was the guilty party – and the recurring theme in the film is that you can’t even trust the “girl next door.” Even the good girl might actually also be a bad girl. 

A still from “Pick Up,” Army Service Forces Signal Corps Production, 1944


Sarah: These efforts were, of course, focused on American women near American bases in American legal settings. Things were a bit more complicated once GIs shipped out and started to have sex with local women. During the Vietnam War, the US Army was forced to reevaluate its approach to policing soldiers’ sexual activity and preventing sexually transmitted infections. Things had changed between World War II and Vietnam (and yes, I’m skipping Korea, I’m sorry, watch MASH) in terms of how everyone, soldier and civilian, thought about sex. The availability of the birth control pill and the “sexual revolution” of the late 1960s changed the way that soldiers thought about their right to have sex. Now, seemed more like an individual, personal right that the Army couldn’t regulate, especially during an unpopular war fought by a force made largely of disaffected draftees. Seeking release from the stresses of service ‘in country,’ many soldiers used drugs, drank heavily, and made use the newly booming South Vietnamese sex trade. And I mean booming – in 1969, there were 550,000 American soldiers in Vietnam, spending literally millions of dollars while on their two-week R&R trips to Saigon and other locations. In addition, introduction of antibiotics toward the end of World War II meant that by the time of the Vietnam War, most sexually transmitted infections were very easily treated – which also meant that they did not seem as disturbing or threatening as they had once been. The result was that once again, venereal disease became a problem facing the military. 

Marissa: Like it had during WWII, the Department of Defense (previously called the War Department) responded by making a sex ed film called Where the Girls Are – VD in Southeast Asia. Apparently the film was conceived because Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown was horrified at the rate of STIs he discovered during a trip to Vietnam. Brown took his concern to Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who then gave the project to General John McConnell, who then tasked the Air Force Medical Service to make a educational film to stop the spread of VD. One officer involved in the film production believed that the film was critical because “the capability of the overseas command to fulfill its mission could be jeopardized without adequate indoctrination and education in health subjects.” The resulting film was designed to educate soldiers in the Air Force about the “hazards and tragedies” of “becoming a victim” of the rampant VD in Vietnam. Oddly enough, Where the Girls Are was the only military film about venereal disease produced during Vietnam – which is surprising only because there were so many made by just about every branch of the military during WWII. But it still emulates its predecessors by telling the story of a fresh-faced, naïve GI named Pete, who is trying to be true to his sweetheart at home, Julie after arriving in country. Nevertheless lured by the temptations of Saigon’s massage parlors, where he contracts gonorrhea. He’s sternly lectured by a medical officer, and is heartened by some letters from Julie, but once again gives in to temptation to have sex with a Vietnamese woman while on R&R. Later, Pete returns home, he and Julie decide to get married – but (gasp!) during pre-marital blood tests, Pete discovers he has SYPHILIS, which he may have given to his good and wholesome American fiancée. I’ll quote scholar Sue Sun here: “The film ends on a somber note, with Pete’s mourning intonation, “You can’t promise a girl like Julie you’ll be true to her and then show up with a case of syphilis.” 

Sarah: While the theme of Pick-Up was that even apparently good American girls can’t be trusted, the theme of Where the Girls Are is that Vietnamese women were overly sexual and that Asia, in general, was the home of sexual decadence. The orientalist fetishism and racism is overt. One character in the film describes Vietnam as “sensous southeast Asia, land of the slope-eyed broads and scented baths.” The Vietnamese women featured in the film are heavily sexualized, depicted hanging on each other, showing off short skirts and exposed thighs, and the scenes of Saigon focus on the seedy. According to Sue Sun, “it was intended that Saigon would be presented as a collection of foreign options, presenting a somewhat fantastical view of Vietnamese life as it was thought to be perceived by the American soldier.” Indeed, Vietnam itself is depicted as feminized, with almost no male Vietnamese characters appearing at all – it’s a country of dangerous, enticing women. On the other hand, naïve Pete is depicted as a clean cut, white American boy next door. What’s more, the film focuses intently on only one kind of STI prevention: abstinence. While the military did provide soldiers with condoms, the film does not instruct soldiers on how to effectively use them (which is probably why rates of STIs were still high despite their availability. Instead, the only real way to avoid disease is to avoid diseased women entirely. 

Military anti-VD poster | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Today, despite (some) advances in treatment regimens and sex education, and a military force made up of both men and women, sexually transmitted infections are again on the rise in the US armed forces. According to a report by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch (which is essentially a branch of the Military Health System focused on epidemiology) released in 2019, chlamydia rates in the armed forces doubled and the rates of gonorrhea infections doubled for men and rose by 33% for women between 2013 and 2018, and the 2018 syphilis rate was three times larger than in 2008. In 2012 alone, the Navy paid over $5 million dollars in health care costs stemming from sexually transmitted infections. And if you consider the lasting repercussions of an infection like HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer, the health care costs are even higher and long-lasting.

Sarah: Some have blamed this increase on the use of dating apps like Tinder or social media in general, which are apparently being used to find hook-ups. But I think that there’s more likely a deeper reason. The Medical Surveillance Monthly Report from March 2019 found that the highest incidence of infection was among junior enlisted officers in their early 20s with a high school education or less. And according to 26 year old Air Force veteran Elizabeth McGee, “a lot of people that I knew of at least that joined, they were either really, really young or they were from somewhere that didn’t have much sex education.” McGee also recalled the required sex education training she received when she enlisted, which focused not on how to effectively prevent STIs while sexually active, but on the horrors of scary diseases. So while Tinder might facilitate finding a sexual partner, it’s not the real reason young officers and soldiers were getting STIs – it’s (shocker) America’s shitty sexual education policies. 

Bibliography 

Parascandola, John. Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing, 2008.

Lowry, Thomas P. Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 

Slaughter, Thomas. Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflection on Men and Wilderness. New York: Knopf, 2003. 

Clinton, Catherine.“‘Public Women’ and Sexual Politics During the American Civil War,” in Clinton & Silber, Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

Jones, James Boyd, Jr. “A Tale of Two Cities: The Hidden Battle against Venereal Disease in Civil War Nashville and Memphis,” Civil War History 31 (September 1985), 270-276. 

Moore, John. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion Part III Vol. I Washington: Government Printing Office, 1888.

Hegarty, Marilyn. Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 

Winchell, Meghan. Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Sun, Sue. “Where the Girls Are: The Management of Venereal Disease by United States Military Forces in Vietnam,” Literature and Medicine 23 (Spring 2004), 66-87.


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