Know For Sure – World War 2’s Venereal Front

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The propaganda war against sexually transmitted disease amongst soldiers.

Many things changed, however temporarily, during the Second World War. The influx of women into the workplace, to replace the men who were away fighting, of course, but also the acknowledgement of a different sort of working girl, and her possible impact on the war effort. While society still liked to pretend that sex before marriage was only for the most wanton and shameless, the reality of men away from home, facing the strong possibility of dying in combat, meant that the military at least had to admit that some of those men would be dealing with the horrors of staring death in the face in the time-honoured military fashion, finding girlfriends in the towns where they were stationed or visiting prostitutes. This meant an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, and the armed forces  – particularly in America – had to put aside any squeamishness about the subject and tackle it head-on, with a series of posters and educational films. It was the start of widespread sex education, and although it now seems hysterical and somewhat sexist, we have to remember that not only was this aimed at keeping the male conscripts healthy and fighting fit, but that syphilis at the time was a pretty hardcore illness, resulting in madness, sterility and death if left untreated (and treatment itself was still a fairly new development).

The posters and films are a mix of scare tactics, shaming and reassurance – the latter designed to ensure that anyone who did pick up a dose would at least seek medical treatment before it was too late. The shaming came in the form of admonishing men who were taking up hospital beds while their colleagues were fighting the Axis, essentially painting them as little more than collaborators with the enemy, while the scare tactics made VD look like a death sentence. How this sometimes conflicting information sat together is anyone’s guess. More pragmatically, the campaigns said that if you really couldn’t keep it in your pants, you should at least wear a condom, or a Pro(phylactic).

The sex education campaign didn’t end with the war, and wasn’t simply aimed at the military, though it would again less upfront in later years. 1941 film Know for Sure is one of the best of the films aimed at civilians – in this melodrama – spoiler alert – Italian stereotype Tony is driven to despair when it turns out that his untreated dose of syphilis is responsible for the death of his new bambino. It’s quite the ride:

Post-war STD campaigns were a great deal calmer, even as the sexual revolution in the late 1960s saw VD figures shoot through the roof. But better treatment meant that an STD could be pretty much shrugged off by the hippy generation. Ads like VD Is For Everyone might have had a serious message, but it was a somewhat sugar-coated one compared to earlier campaigns:

At the start of the 1980s, there was a disproportionate panic about herpes, but within a couple of years, the fear of sexually transmitted disease was back with a vengeance, as IDS spread panic across the world. Notably, most of the campaigns around AIDS have been less judgemental and more aimed at dispelling myths about transmission, encouraging safe sex and urging sympathy and support for those infected. Even Britain’s famous ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign, while somewhat apocalyptic, was more about education than admonishment. Of course, not everyone got the message and there were certainly some poster campaigns in the early days of the disease that were aimed at putting the fear of God into the promiscuous sinners.

Sex education campaigns today are less grim, and rather less memorable than those of years gone by. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing – unsensational facts probably help more people than finger-wagging and fire and brimstone preaching. But as works of art and vintage propaganda, you can’t beat the classics…

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