What's Love Got To Do With It?
No Magic Bullet By Allan M.Brandt Oxford University Press 186pp $1995
PICTURE A moonlit patio, the rhythm of soft Jazz, and a lavish dinner ready to be enjoyed. You're about to sit down when your date gives your hand an extra squeeze and wonders aloud. Do you happen to have V.D., herpes or AIDS? This scenario was not lifted from Porky still but instead is the type of warning currently offered by the popular media. According to author Allan M.Brandt Harvard professor of History and Science. such representations simplistic view that the problem can be solved it individuals act more responsibly in their sexual conduct.
In No Magic Bullet, his first book, Professor Brandt provides a comprehensive history of venereal disease. He traces the beginnings of venereal disease hysteria to the progressive era, when the future of the Victorian-style family was being threatened by the influences of industrialization, urbanization, and a huge influx of "licentious" immigrants.
Armed with a medical explanation for V.D., early twentieth century physicians were torn about how to deal with the infection. While the disease was erroneously thought to be communicable by non-sexual means as well as through intercourse, progressive reformers focused their attacks on foreign prostitutes in the cities and on immorality in all classes. Bachelor parties, once the site of last minute merry-making, became the object of criticism and fear and muckrakers took every opportunity to make the venereal problem "a subject of gossip."
Meanwhile, physicians became more attuned to the delicate nature of treating patients-whether or not to expose its occurrence to future or current spouses, how to alert authorities about the disease while protecting the confidence of patients, and the very treatment of the afflicted. Because venereal disease might be acquired at the drinking fountain or the public lavatory, or so they thought, physicians quietly suggested caution in personal habits and the control of immorality in the working classes. Exposing all dangers of the disease, physicians suggested that it could be acquired even "within the boundaries of Victorian morality."
While the newspapers continued to refer euphemistically to V.D. as a "rare blood disease," and the U.S. Post Office banned the pamphlet What Every Girl Should Know because of its explicit references to gonorrhea, physicians became more vocal in supporting sex education and moralistic in abhorring the vices, "bred in the pestilential hot house atmosphere of dark, dirty, ill-ventilated homes, which induce ... abnormal cravings."
The most intriguing aspect of No Magic Bullet's is Brandt's analysis of the military's campaign against V.D. On the eve of World War I, the stereotypical macho image of men in uniform rang true; in 1917 the War Department was so alarmed by training camp reports of drunkenness and carousing with wanton women that it promised soldiers "invisible armor" to protect them against the "heated temptations" of immorality. A Commission on Training Camp Activities was created with the objective of not only cleaning up the extra-curricular activities of the soldiers but using the American military to set an example of morality before the country and he entire world. Hostess Houses were created so that wives and girlfriends could visit with soldiers, but the high concentration of men on military bases were more prose to answer the calls convenient prostitutes and flocking girls.
Much of the Commission's activities involved social hygiene instruction and literature about the male sexual image. A typical pamphlet offered.
It used to be thought that these organs had to be used if they were to be kept healthy. This is a lie. If it were true, the boy who exercises them regularly from childhood on should have the greatest sex power-but he is more likely to be sexually dead before he matures ... Sex power is not lost by laying off.
The campaign appealed to patriotism and manhood when hygiene warnings did not succeed. Brandt finds a contemporary speech spouting. "Any man with enough nerve and backbone to wear the uniform of the United States soldier is perfectly able to live a normal healthy life without intercourse throughout the war and afterwards." Accounts of almost 30 percent of military men with venereal disease convinced the Navy to remove all warship doorknobs as a preventive measure one war-time year.
BRANDT'S MOST interesting discovery was that reform in the military was not sufficient insurance against licentious conduct. Although women were seen as "more of a menace than the German soldier," and prostitution was said to come hand in hand with V.D., the soldiers could not be stopped by mere moralizing. Documents from the U.S. Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board suggest that at least 15,000 prostitutes were arrested and quarantined in guarded camps surrounded by barbed wire, all in the name of making men "fit to fight."
The detention of prostitutes during World War I demonstrates the underlying theme of hostility against women in the crusade against venereal disease. Brandt points out that from the start women were either viewed as weak helpless victims or the very source of temptation and disease. Negative propaganda against women entered almost every pamphlet' and poster condemning the disease. Perhaps the most blatant is a World War II poster portraying venereal disease as a sexy woman arm in arm with Nazi soldiers thus declaring her the worst.
Brandt also points to the outrageous treatment of Blacks in medical studies of social diseases. In the 1930's the Public Health Service began a study on the impact of untreated syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama. For over forty years 400 Black sharecroppers were denied treatment without objection from the medical community until the study ended in 1972. According to Brandt, "the doctors who designed the study believed that all southern Blacks were infected ... and would never be treated anyway. The study only further demonstrates the racist links between VD and poor morals.
Not only does Brandt give us a comprehensive and entertaining history of venereal disease in America but he draws valuable comparisons between the hygiene gospel" and current fears of AIDS and herpes. He says, "Contraction of a venereal disease represented a failure of self-control, a central tenet of progressive ideology." This is the same message being offered by the popular media today. Time magazine calls herpes the new scarlet letter and herpes sufferers "unusually dishonest and unusually promiscuous. Professor Brandt shows that even today, we are still getting the same mixed messages about sexuality be a libertine but take the responsibility for sexually transmitted diseases. Indeed, there is a historical precedent for mothers familiar warning. "Don't sit on the toilet seat.