We’ve posted previously about the ways in which World War II posters aimed at U.S. soldiers warned against “venereal disease” (what we now know as sexually transmitted infections) by personifying them as dangerous, diseased women. Molly W. and Jessica H. have shown us to a new source of propaganda posters, so now seems as good a time to revisit the phenomenon. In our previous post, I articulated the problem as follows:
Remember, venereal disease is NOT a woman. It’s bacteria or virus that passes between women and men. Women do not give it to men. Women and men pass it to each other. When venereal disease is personified as a woman, it makes women the diseased, guilty party and men the vulnerable, innocent party.
This first poster is an excellent example. In it, the woman is synonymous with death:
In other posters, women are simply seen as the diseased party. Concern that a soldier might pass disease to “pick ups” and “prostitutes” is unspoken. This is funny, given that the reason for this propaganda was sky-high rates of VD among soldiers.
So “pick ups” and “prostitutes” were seen as vectors of disease. They were the guilty party. In contrast, wives are portrayed as innocent. Another example of the dividing of women into virgins and whores:Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Jihad Punk — June 15, 2011
Aoirthoir — June 15, 2011
"So “pick ups” and “prostitutes” were seen as vectors of disease. They were the guilty party. In contrast, wives are portrayed as innocent. Another example of the dividing of women into virgins and whores:"
I love it when persons not in the military comment on the military's efforts to keep soldiers free of STDs. STDs and STIs have indeed been a HUGE problem that crippled many a military campaign in the past. Experience finally taught the military the need to be informing soldiers that they could be infected. This is responsible leadership.
Of course in the past, bands of prostitutes would follow armies on their campaigns. It was no unknown for them to be in the encampment itself. Already war contributes to disease, including of armies on both sides. So soldiers are already weakened (and for other reasons are) so they can be more susceptible to infections. The prostitutes and others that followed armies were likewise susceptible already to typical infections, their risk for STIs increased as well.
More than a few generals made prostitution illegal, or soldiers attending prostitutes illegal. This was at a time when prostitution was not viewed through as "bad" or "evil" but simply a reality. The temperance movements which illegalized prostitution, had not started during these periods. So it was that these decisions were based on their effect on the effectiveness of the army.
By the time WWII rolled around, because of experience in the past, but PARTICULARLY because of the terrible experiences with STDs and STIs that Americans soldiers had in WWI, the Army decided to do all it could to protect itself, its missions and the soldiers.
That meant being honest that prostitutes and other women did INDEED have high rates of STIs and STDs compared to wives. Those wives typically would only have been with one man their entire lives, their husband. (Notice I said TYPICALLY). And we're talking American wives which had created a system that put immense pressure on women to indeed only be with one. So the rates of STDs and STIs was significantly different. As experience had shown, including as mentioned in WWI.
Now some of the claims in the posters are a bit over the top "98% are infected...." But when you're fighting a d'mned war against facists bent on destroying and enslaving everyone else, sometimes it's ok to exaggerate if it helps reduce harms to your soldiers, troops and campaigns.
Alan — June 15, 2011
This is just to glib and facile. Unfortunately the rates of venereal disease were high in prostitutes at this time and it was entirely reasonable to warn soldiers about this. The assumptions of guilt and shame are in the poster's mind not in the posters.
byrde — June 15, 2011
The only sign in this post that talks about treating STIs is aimed at men. Sexism much?
Yes, these are aimed at GIs and yes, there's little point in making ads about prostitutes who get treated for STIs when the Military's goal is to keep soldiers and prostitutes apart. And GI's likely had better access to medical treatment. But, medical treatment is medical treatment and theoretically available to everyone.
Eli — June 15, 2011
To critics of this post: no one is denying that soldiers who pick up women are at a high risk for contracting STIs or claiming that this is not information that they must be made aware of. But what is problematic in these ads and what is being critiqued here is the manner in which the information is presented -- women are vilified, deemed "easy" or "loose" (because obviously the soldiers who have sex with them are not equally loose?), and depicted as sly and immoral because of their sexual behavior. It would be very easy to advise soldiers to be wary of contracting STIs in a sensitive (not misogynistic) manner. The double standard here is so evident that I am absolutely dismayed (but, alas, not surprised) that so many people cannot recognize it.
Jonathan — June 15, 2011
It would have been cheaper and easier for the military to simply give all prostitutes free penicillin injections for the duration of the war. As they presented a bottleneck for the diseases, treating a thousand prostitutes is cheaper and easier than treating ten thousand GIs.
Ted — June 15, 2011
I find it interesting how some of the posters suggest that having sex with prostitutes is okay, so long as you get treated right away.
For example, the last poster shows the happy man who got treated and went back to a happy family (implying that it was okay that he cheated on his wife, because he got treated). Even the first poster underlines "unless properly treated"!
B. — June 15, 2011
@Aoirthoir - There's nothing wrong with critiquing the military's actions. Indeed, it's our responsibility to be critical of the military whenever they are dishonest, dishonorable, irresponsible, abusing human rights, engaging in illegal practices, etc. Also, there's nothing wrong with providing medical information to soldiers so long as that information focuses on the medical risks in any given situation without discriminating against a particular group of people.
And there was no time during which prostitution/sex work was widely socially accepted in either a neutral or a positive light. The vast majority of sex workers have always been and are still marginalized both in times of war and peace, and women overall have pretty much always been subject to the virgin/whore stereotype. Military officials also tried to discourage soldiers from employing the services of sex workers during the Civil War due to the high rate of STI's among the troops; similarly discriminatory language and stereotypes about women were used then, too. So as you implied, this issue long predates the World Wars. And these stereotypes have always been used as excuses to dehumanize and socioeconomically disempower women, whether they're sex workers or homemakers/stay-at-home moms, just about forever in so-called civilization. Portraying STI's as either a woman's fault or literally as a women negates the responsibility of men in their own choices about sexual safety - it takes two people to be sexually safe and responsible. It acts as an excuse to limit women's socioeconomic mobility because they're "dangerous" when "uncontrolled" and independent, or alternately because they're infantilized and put on a pedestal and "too fragile" to make it on their own in the world and "need" protection from men. There are ways to be straightforward about the medical risks of unprotected sex without also campaigning against women or other groups of marginalized people.
Your logic seems to be that we should favor marginalizing women by perpetuating gender stereotypes that do longterm damage to women and, by proxy, their relationships to men (and therefore, they do damage to men as well) if this helps us to win a war by any means necessary, so to speak. It was contrary to American, anti-Fascist values to undermine women's rights and autonomy by dehumanizing them in this way during WWII, and it's still contrary to our values today. Fascists are notorious for using propaganda and misinformation against marginalized people to influence the public or targeted groups of more privileged people. If non-Fascists resort to using the same methods, then we aren't any better than they are. It's the ethical obligation of non-Fascists to be honest and provide patients/potential patients with factual medical information free from discriminatory stereotypes. The United States should not have employed dirty propaganda tactics similar to those used by the Fascists against whom we fought in WWII in its attempt to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections among our troops. Don't emulate your enemy in order to fight your enemy or you will become what you oppose.
Lance — June 15, 2011
I'm fascinated by the phrase "procurable women" (which, based on a Google search, seems only to exist on that poster). Is that a euphemism for "prostitute", or is there some other way to [ugh] "procure" a woman?
Also, though I grant it's somewhat off-topic: does anyone know whether the statistics in these posters (4 out of 5 women have VD, 98% of procurable women have VD) are at all accurate, or pure scare tactics?
Raven — June 15, 2011
I don't see what's so wrong about these ads. Either way they are sending out a message that protects both men AND women.
JS — June 15, 2011
If one were creating an anti-STD campaign aimed at the general public, one would expect the ads to apportion responsibility for sexual health equally to both genders, and ads which blamed women alone for the spread of STDs would be unfair and misogynist. However, these ads are aimed exclusively at the non-infected male soldiers, thus it focuses on the danger posed by infected women. If one were doing an ad campaign targeted exclusively at the female prostitutes, it would make sense to focus on the danger posed by infected men ("Watch out ladies! Your next john could be a carrier of disease, take care!) with images of foreboding male figures lurking in the shadows.
FDChief — June 15, 2011
And you'll note that there's only one (that I can find) that puts it the other way - that a man who screws a woman not his wife is a slut to be shamed - and that one isn't exactly even-handed (it's the navy one that states that "a sailor doesn't have to prove that he's a man") since the object of the proof is the curvaceous slut under the lamppost.
And speaking now as a GI, it's not that the guys would have been getting a healthy dose of "your horny bastards need to keep it in your pants" elsewhere, either.
Keeping the guys off sick call was important, but the WAY these posters are designed to do it does say a lot about the default attitude towards the women shared by the artists (and presumably the troops) that a woman was a wife and mother...or a life-support system for a vagina (and a skanky one, at that!)...
Bill Angel — June 16, 2011
I agree that several of the graphics are disturbing in that they present women as synonymous either with death or with venereal disease.
I took a photograph last weekend outdoors in Baltimore of a mannequin displaying a sexy dress for sale. I thought of the mannequin display simply as humorous, now I'm not so sure...
Flea — June 16, 2011
And if this kind of propaganda fails we will always have this:
M — June 16, 2011
Ah this view of women is often still around. As a promiscuous woman (who practices safer sex, and has never had an STI) who had been actively looking for sex, I got a lot of questions about whether I'm a "dirty girl".
Of course, if I was, why would I have told them anyway? This was in a small town, in a more conservative part of Canada. But boy it was so depressing. Actively looking for sex partners != diseased.
M — June 16, 2011
Nope, I've actually been asked if I'm dirty. That was a quotation. And I have to talk to people to find out if I should have sex with them, don't I?
Paul Harrison — June 17, 2011
Since the soldiers are risking their lives in a noble cause, it's not going to go down well to portray them as diseased. I don't think that would change if the military had a better gender balance.
I'm sure there are all sorts of interesting things that could be said about the depiction of soldiers.
Aoirthoir — June 17, 2011
In response to Baggie up above:
"Ah, your debate skills have certainly convinced me now! Nothing like an unsupported "nuh UH" to win an argument... 9.9"
Ok. Of course, let's ignore the fact that I ALREADY covered the issues you brought up. :D.
"You might not be trolling but you're a terrible arguer;"
Says the person that has to avoid replying to my actual points.
"I have literally started scrolling over every post with your name on it"
Excellent. Then you shant be bothered with having to respond to what I've SAID. You can just relax comfortable in your knowledge that ad hominems won't win you any awards, but on a leftist blog, it most definitely will "win" you arguments, in the minds of all of those who ALREADY agree with you. That's a brilliant plan you've got there Sparky.
"because you couldn't reason your way out of a paper bag."
I betcha I could.
"If you can't respect other commenters enough to respond substantially to their arguments"
You mean perhaps by quoting what they've ACTUALLY said, and replying to their claims, statement by statement? Or do you mean "respond substantially to their arguments" by telling them "na na nuh na na, I don't like you :PPPPPPPP"?
"then I won't respect you enough to read your ranting."
Which will save you heaploads of cognitive dissonance.
Heather Leila — June 17, 2011
It´s not wrong to warn people about STIs, or even that having sex with sex workers is risky.
The real problem is the imagery. It places the blame of infection on women. Women as skeletons, women as death incarnate, women in seductive poses - as if they WANT to give the GI the disease. These images reinforce misogynist ideas about women as dirty, place the all the blame of infection on women, and, as has been pointed out they reinforce the virgin-whore dichotomy. It´s not the intention of the health message that is wrong, it´s the delivery, the artwork, the specific text.
What is interesting to me is that many anti-STI posters made during the 1930s seem less dependent on the image of sex workers and call on other images to make their point. Pictures of family, wedding rings, employment - all things which could be lost with syphilis (because let´s recognize that when they talk about sex and death they are talking about syphilis as HIV wasn´t around yet). I think the posters with marriage themes are especially interesting as abstinence-until-marriage proponents like to say that being married can protect you against STIs and it has been known for a long time that this isn´t true.
Here is my gallery of contrasting posters:
What We Missed — June 17, 2011
[...] Sociological Images, a look at the use of the virgin-whore dichotomy in World War II propaganda posters. Remember: you can’t fight the axis if you get [...]
Aoirthoir — June 17, 2011
Well, misogyny is HATE. The posters in no way demonstrate hate. They deal soley in facts. Facts are there are certain behaviors which increase your risk for VD as a soldier (you know, the ones whom the ads are targeted at). The skull is not a representation of women. It is a representation of infection. it represents the infection. An infection which plainly can be gotten from a woman, that's a FACT.
If the topic were soldiers need to avoid drinking pesticides, it would have carried similar imagery. But since the world is "patriarchal" none of us would be presuming that the ad was hateful of men who cleaned a house of pests. We'd all understand exactly what the ad meant, stay away from pesticides.
In this case the ad is being very specific in its imagery about the results of INFECTION. Infection acquired from sexual intercourse. We can look at the same thing differently now because most of us can be tested. MANY of us are tested. Back then? Not so much. Facts are bothersome sometimes, but that doesn't make reporting those facts hateful.
Now something like these, which IMPLICATE the woman herself, in trying to "trap" him or she's a "sniper":
or something like this which implies that she INTENDS some evil upon him:
Those move to make the issue about THE WOMAN, her motives, her DELIBERATE actions. It's not just that she happens to want a good time, AND he gets VD. It's that her INTENT IS TO GIVE VD. THOSE are problematic.
But the other posters, INCLUDING the one with the skull, are not vilifying or hating on women. They're just warning of RESULTS.
So no, not misogyny.
a nonny mouse — June 19, 2011
sure dude. do you also get to be the deciding factor on what is racist, or homophobic, etc? because that would make things a heck of a lot easier for the rest of us! i mean ,you know, if you're the final word on whether something is offensive or not then there's no reason for us wimmenz to get our pretty little heads in a tizzy everytime something misogynist takes place because you will be there to sort it all out and tell us that's we're '[missing] some vaild points' or just that we're 'claiming it's misogyny', not that it actually is because we can't be trusted to make those sorts of decisions i guess.
Aoirthoir — June 19, 2011
"sure dude. do you also get to be the deciding factor on what is racist,"
Sure. I'll state the same thing about this that I stated about claims of misogyny. Just because someone CLAIMS something is racist, doesn't mean it IS racist.
"or homophobic, etc?"
Or ableist? Like conflating hate of homosexuals with a non-neurtypical condition?
"because that would make things a heck of a lot easier for the rest of us!"
Yes it would. It would make things a heck of a lot easier to examine the FACTS OF AN ACCUSATION rather than automatically just accepting persons claims as true.
"i mean ,you know, if you're the final word on whether something is offensive or not then there's no reason for us wimmenz to get our pretty little heads in a tizzy everytime"
Well here we go, typical feminist shaming language. The mere act of disagreeing with a particular claim of a SPECIFIC INSTANCE of misogyny means a PARTICUALR male thinks of women as "wimmenz" as having "pretty little heads" and thinks that THEIR claims of misogyny are a "tizzy". One most ALWAYS agree ALWAYS or one is accused of yet more misogyny.
Claims like these are a problem because they fall into the typical feminist act of claiming what ANOTHER person THINKS or FEELs. This is a problem mostly simply because they are so often wrong. As in this case.
So I'll say what I've had to say a few dozen times. Now you're MAKING THINGS UP.
Life doesn't work that way. See, I can disagree with you, and NOT think you are in a tizzy. I can believe that your INTERPRETATION is incorrect, and yet still believe that you are a fine, capable and intelligent person. What you CLAIM has nothign to do with my interpretation of your head "pretty", "little" or otherwise.
At a certain point you'll realize a few things. 1, that someone disagreeing with you isn't a personal or demographic insult. 2, if you make a claim you actually have to back it up. 3, even when you back it up, if the claim is an interpretation, others may still interpret something different from you. Which should lead you to the first point, 4, that someone disagreeing with your interpreation is not personally or demographically insulting you. They are DISAGREEING with you.
"something misogynist takes place because you will be there to sort it all out and tell us that's we're"
Once again, just because someone somewhere, even you, claims that something is misogynistic, doesn't mean it IS misogynistic.
"'[missing] some vaild points'"
Yeah. Actually that was a mildly funny [to me] retort to your original statement. You didn't think I was REALLY answering "your welcome" to your sarcastic "thank you" did you?
"or just that we're 'claiming it's misogyny',"
Sometimes you are. Sometimes people make false claims. Hard to believe I know, in this world so full of truth and everyone being right all the time and women NEVER being wrong. But, it's a fact.
"not that it actually is because we can't be trusted to make those sorts of decisions i guess."
And again I'll say, now you're MAKING THINGS UP. Perhaps if YOU disagree with someone, that means that YOU think they cannot be trusted to make "these sorts of decisions." So perhaps that is why you make such claims about other persons. But your the one that said that, not me.
I can disagree with someone even passionately or vehemently and not take it as a personal insult, or think they are minimizing my mental capacities simply because THEY DISAGREE BACK. Why can I do this? Because my disagreement is saying nothing about THEIR mental capacities. It is quite simply, disagreement, nothing more.
Body Horrors’ Amuse-Bouches « — December 12, 2011
[...] media from a sociological perspective. Their piece from June 2011 on the virgin/whore binary in venereal disease propaganda from the World War II era is really a treat. An earlier article on the personification of [...]
Haley8001 — December 29, 2012
No one wants to take a hit at the soldier who came home to his wife and children infected with an STI? Thank god he had his shots right, he cheated on his wife but the lil angel took his shots. Honestly I'd be insulted as either gender. It portrays women as these vile creatures and men as helpless idiots who will put their penises in anything offering.
Sociopress.cz » Ženy jako společný nepřítel – gender, syfilis a propaganda — February 11, 2013
[...] Lisa. 2011. The Virgin/whore binary in the world war II propaganda, In: TheSocietyPages.org, 15. 06. 2011. [Dostupné online 9. 2. [...]
Chester Field — October 5, 2014
Lot of butt-hurt feminists & male feminists on this comment thread. A lot of these posters still apply today....women cheat just as often as men. GO MGTOW!
Taylor — April 14, 2018
The virgin/whore discussion is lost on me. This insistence on placing women in one camp or another doesn't come from the posters, it comes from a warped view of sexuality and its purpose today. Sex is beautiful, it's private and its reserved for a husband and wife. Sure, you may not choose to live that way. But it means you've chosen to step outside the bounds that can protect you from all the awful things the military warned us about in these posters. But far worse than syphilis is guilt and shame for using yourself - male or female - for a few minutes of pleasure. What a waste. Thirty years into a marriage where we both waited and have been faithful, sex is just as special and awesome as it ever was for me and my spouse. Word to the wise: Waiting is worth it.