During World War I, 18,000 US servicemen were out of action every single day thanks to venereal diseases. Military hospitals took in more men for VD treatment than any other condition apart from mumps, tonsillitis, and bronchitis.
Understandably, venereal diseases were a major concern during World War II as well, and so the military set out to reduce rates of transmission. Booklets were given to servicemen detailing prevention and treatment methods, prophylaxis centers were created, and poster campaigns served as ever-present warnings and reminders to the troops. The following 10 posters offer a look at wartime anti-STD advertising, opinions of the day on the subject, and other initiatives undertaken by the military to keep venereal diseases from spreading.
10. He “Picked Up” More Than a Girl
During WWII, women, in particular, were singled out as the reason for the prevalence of venereal diseases among the armed forces. The leering skull in the background of the image above seems to suggest that the girl in question is the agent of death – or if not death, then at least insanity, blindness, sterility and heart disease. Women began to be portrayed as the guilty parties, carriers of a vicious disease, while the men were merely victims. And this view was tied up with a military crackdown on prostitution.
9. Venereal Disease Covers the Earth
In the image above, the juxtaposition of the towering female in red and the ominous warning suggests a clear link between venereal diseases and women as their primary agents. Fortunately for the military, by 1944 there were 30 times fewer men incapacitated as a result of venereal diseases each day than in WWI. In addition to knowledge about more effective treatment procedures, this was probably due to the increase in education and prophylaxis measures.
Each man was issued with a kit containing a tube of medicated cream (with calomel and sulfathiazole), instructions, and a couple of cleansing wipes. Monthly, servicemen were also each given half a dozen condoms, and they could buy more if they wanted them. This last approach was in stark contrast to WWI, when men weren’t given condoms specifically because authorities thought the troops would consider them an invitation to participate in sexual activity.
Other measures were put into place to serve as deterrents to the troops and seemed to place a degree of responsibility on the servicemen’s shoulders. Their pay could be docked while under treatment for venereal disease, they could be handed extended terms of service to compensate for being unfit for duty, and they could even be court marshaled if they didn’t report that they were infected.
Many men would keep their infection secret, as they didn’t want to risk having their pay docked or the other possible penalties. Yet this was particularly problematic in the Air Force because the sulfa drugs were believed to impede the skills required for flying. Finally, in September 1944, it was declared that contracting venereal diseases would no longer result in punishment. As the above poster may demonstrate, however, women like the “Victory Girls” were still named and shamed as carriers of VD, ready to “cook some poor guy’s goose” if the man wasn’t sufficiently cautious.
7. Juke Joint Sniper
Despite the potential consequences laid out for infected servicemen, much of the blame for STDs was placed firmly on prostitutes and sexually active women – as shown by the poster above, which seems to suggest that some women were as dangerous as snipers. That said, local law enforcement often didn’t have enough muscle to quash prostitution. And in July 1941, this problem led to the enactment of the May Act, which essentially made prostitution and soliciting for sex illegal within a certain distance of military bases. As a result, thousands of women were arrested and even imprisoned.
6. Why Bet Against These Odds?
By 1944, 17 percent of all arrests were made on women, up from eight-and-a-half percent four years previously. The May Act wasn’t solely responsible for this increase, but it surely played a part. Women had a greater chance of being arrested for sexual activity than men, whether they were prostitutes or not. In fact, many women were arrested simply on the suspicion that they were participating in licentious behavior. Many were then quarantined, tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections without even having been charged of a crime – although asserting that 98 percent of “procurable women” were found to have VD, as the poster above states, sounds like it was exaggeration.
While posters during WWI generally promoted safe sex habits among both genders, WWII campaigns portrayed sexually active women as, in the words of author Elizabeth Alice Clement, “potential seducers, disease carriers, and friends of the enemy” – or even, as in the poster above, as apparently dangerous as a loaded pistol. Women who were simply standing at a bus stop might be viewed with distrust – perhaps explaining to some degree why the arrest rate for “disorderly conduct” among young females increased by more than 200 percent during the war. Men’s sexual desires, on the other hand, were often seen as completely natural and accepted and were even encouraged by some military personnel.
4. Booby Trap
Women, as the image above demonstrates, were portrayed as saboteurs, out to interfere with the war effort and trap innocent or careless soldiers. It’s been suggested that the women featured in these posters were depicted as having only one purpose – to have sex with, and as a result infect, the hapless troops with debilitating diseases. The sheer number of posters picturing women as VD carriers potentially propagated the belief that women were mostly, if not solely, responsible for spreading venereal infections.
3. Hello Boy Friend, Coming My Way?
In order to avoid so-called “easy” women spreading diseases, servicemen were encouraged to refrain from sexual intercourse. Education was highlighted, and it was suggested that efforts should be made to reduce circumstances that would allow soldiers to have sex. Hard-hitting posters like this one, warning of a “premature death,” served as reminders to the servicemen; even packs of matches were plastered with warnings about venereal diseases. The military also recognized that the men needed other recreation options, and encouraged officers to arrange sports and other pastimes to keep the soldiers out of trouble.
2. She May Be… a Bag of Trouble
While, as in this poster, females were depicted as potential “trouble” due to being the carriers of diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, women in the armed forces were apparently excluded from any kind of targeted venereal disease campaigns or education efforts. In fact, a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) circular stated that it was against War Department Policy to educate servicewoman about prophylaxis, or to provide them with the prevention kits that male soldiers received. According to the circular, “The provisions of the Army regulations and directives concerning these matters are intended for male personnel only, and are not applicable to female personnel.”
1. She May Look Clean – But
It’s interesting to note that, despite the lack of education and prophylaxis directed their way, the rate of venereal disease among WAC staff working in Europe was only 2.92 cases out of 1,000 by the summer of 1944. Cases that did arise were taken seriously, though, and the women were treated as in-patients in hospital rather than in a dispensary or while still carrying out their duties.
According to the WWII US Medical Research Center, by 1944, 606 servicemen were out of commission due to sexually transmitted diseases every single day. And while that number is significantly less than its equivalent for WWI, it still accounted for many days of lost combat. Perhaps further approaches that didn’t blame women like “pick-ups,” “good time girls” and “prostitutes” as the sole carriers of venereal diseases might have helped to tackle this.