Monday, July 18, 2016
This past weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. For a historical novelist, the museum’s collection of vintage subway cars housed in a retired subway station is a true treat. Basically subway cars did not change all that much in a century-plus of underground transport. There are a few notable differences. The earliest cars had ceiling fans, naked electric bulbs and a sort of rattan upholstery coated in shellac. But even in 1916, passengers were distracted from their boredom by subway advertisements, which the museum recreated in the proper historical period in each car as part of the exhibit.
Since my ERWA column always turns my mind towards sex (not that said mind ever wanders far from that topic) I made sure to capture the VD ad on my cell phone for your historical contemplation. This ad dates from the WWII era when public education about sexually transmitted infections—back then the main culprits were gonorrhea and syphilis—was first allowed.
In the 1970s, when I had my one week of sex ed in gym class in seventh grade, we spent two days on male and female anatomy (sans any mention of the clitoris) and the rest on venereal diseases and their devastating consequences. The general tenor was pretty much like the ad in the New York subway in the 1940s. Even then I knew the teachers were holding back some serious information about the more pleasant aspects of heterosexual coupling. Yet my research has revealed that VD-scaring took a relatively enlightened approach to the official provision of information on sexuality.
Back in the 1910s, it was illegal to produce and sell condoms in the United States thanks to Anthony Comstock’s anti-obscenity law, which targeted erotica, contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys and even personal letters with sexual content or information. Comstock’s law was passed in 1873 and was in effect in some form until 1972 when unmarried people could finally legally obtain contraceptives. I would argue that we’re still recovering from its effects. Back in 1917, sexual prudery and denial were in full flower. When the United States entered WWI, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau generously offered the American troops the use of the French army’s regulated brothels, a centuries-old French institution that provided “clean” women for the recreation of their soldiers.
The US secretary of war’s response was “Oh my God, don’t tell the president or he’ll pull out of this war before we send the first troops!” (This quote and all others in this post are courtesy of the wonderfully informative The Humble Little Condom by Aine Collier).
Although quite the passionate erotic letter writer himself, Woodrow Wilson felt that the young men he was sending to Europe to fight and die should be higher-minded. As he wrote in an open letter to the troops: “Let it be your pride, therefore, to show all men everywhere not only what good soldiers you are, but also what good men you are, keeping yourselves fit and straight in everything, and pure and clean through and through.... “
While French and eventually English troops had easy access to condoms, American soldiers had to either borrow from their allies or take their chances. Or remain pure and clean through and through. Alas for Wilson and his ideals, there were almost 400,000 recorded cases of venereal disease among American troops by the end of the war. The French were also annoyed because the VD rate among their prostitutes soared as a result of American patronage. Prudery has its dangers.
The war had a more positive consequence for our still-illegal domestic condom industry. Germany had produced the highest quality condoms in the early twentieth century, but the war cut off the supply of these helpful devices along with hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments and well-crafted wooden toys. American manufacturers had to step in to the breach. Latex condoms made their first appearance in the 1920s. Before that time, condoms were literally made of rubber. Like that joke about the Scotsman who said he’d ask the regiment if they should all chip in to repair their battered communal condom, some types of condoms could indeed be washed out and reused. Fortunately during WWII, the bigwigs of our armed forces took a different attitude toward the sexual recreation of servicemen. They recognized that real men, especially those facing death in war, have libidos and readily supplied latex condoms and education about venereal diseases. According to Collier, U.S. soldiers had sex with an average of 25 women during WWII--with a much lower rate of disease.
Public health education had proved a success, but by the late 1950s, many thought continuing education of that sort would only encourage promiscuity. With the advent of the Pill just a few years away, ads like the one in the subway museum became a thing of the past. It took the HIV epidemic to bring public service STI ads back into the public eye.
Collier quotes Dr. William Holder of the Mississippi Health Department who said: “That’s what usually happens... When a disease control program reaches the point of near eradication, it’s usually the program that’s eradicated, not the disease.”
It is a lesson from history we’d do well to remember.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor