On July 26, 1942, a solider in the U.S. military found out that he had recently contracted a venereal disease. In response to questions from the army medical officer, who wrote down his answers on a form, the soldier indicated that he had probably contracted the infection from a woman named Jane, a twenty-year-old white woman with dark brown hair, “well dressed in a wine colored dress” and carrying a purse. They met on a downtown street and eventually retired to a friend’s car, where they had intercourse.
The World War II home front has long fascinated historians of gender and sexuality. Women’s historians have emphasized how wartime enabled new forms of social control, showing how government agencies policed the behavior of sexually active women through harassment, arrest, quarantine, mandatory venereal disease testing, and incarceration. Historians of gay men and lesbians have highlighted the rise of queer communities, particularly within the military and in coastal cities where those with homosexuality-related dishonorable discharges settled and socialized. Few histories, however, have addressed Americans’ actual sexual encounters during wartime. Evidence of sexual acts between civilian women and enlisted men reveals a striking diversity of practices and uses of space that also reflect racial differences.
With the aim of mapping the terrain of wartime sexual life, in my book I turn to venereal disease contact reports, which federal authorities created as a tool to understand patterns of transmission of venereal infections between servicemen and American women. With the aim of designing more effective prevention and control programs, medical officers filled out contact reports while interviewing servicemen who had been diagnosed with gonorrhea or syphilis. Assuming male patients’ heterosexuality, each form solicited a detailed description of the woman suspected of “spreading” an infection, where the pair had met, and where they proceeded to have intercourse. There were check boxes indicating whether the patient paid for the experience and whether the woman was a “wife,” “friend,” “pickup,” or “prostitute.” The bottom of the form left room for narrative explanations, which often complicated and even contradicted the information provided above.
Although they reflect the perceptions of male partners only and obscure sexual violence, statutory rape, and homosexual sex, contact reports provide insight into the sexual practices of women and (military) men during World War II. They show that academic and government experts’ fears about young women’s sexual rebellion during wartime were grounded in reality; in fact, soldiers found willing sexual partners both in military communities and in their home towns, freeing them from dependence on organized prostitution and opening up the landscape of possibility for casual non-marital sex. As I argue elsewhere, public scrutiny during the war certainly heightened the visibility of pre-existing non-marital sexual behavior, but other evidence—such as illegitimacy rates, adoption data, venereal disease information, criminal justice statistics, and social workers’ observations—suggests that pre- and extra-marital sex became markedly more widespread during the war. Arguably, the strident sexual conservatism of the 1950s was, at least in part, a response to the proliferation of heterosexual sex during the war years.
Contact reports reveal that sexual encounters between servicemen and female civilians frequently eluded the available descriptive categories and blurred the line between commercial and noncommercial sex. In West Virginia, for instance, one infected serviceman reported that he had met a white twenty-four-year-old woman named Bessie at a tavern and had sex with her along the side of a road. Though this man said that he paid nothing, the medical officer filling out the form wrote, “Patient states he believes the contact to be a prostitute.” This and similar reports reveal that government authorities overstated the distinction between casual sex and prostitution. In practice, women and girls could share multiple motivations, which might include sexual desire, a thirst for adventure, and a shortage of resources. Certain women were even driven by a kind of patriotism. A sex worker named “Mabel” told a social worker that she felt sorry for servicemen, whose money everyone was after, so she did not charge them for sex. This complexity of motivations helps to explain why wartime authorities’ largely successful crackdown on brothel prostitution barely impacted venereal disease rates among servicemen. In 1945, military and social protection leaders lamented that 40% of venereal infections in the armed forces were contracted by men while they were on furlough, usually in their home communities.
Contact reports also illuminated the diverse geography of sexual interactions as well as the sexual scripts that led to sexual encounters. Most couples met in “taverns” and then had sex in hotels or private residences, though contact reports also listed cabs, autos or trailers, brothels, and “other” as possibilities. In a tavern, one young soldier picked up a married “Spanish” nurse in training, who told the soldier that she had a room in a nearby hotel but went with him to a different hotel to have sex. In another case, a twenty-six-year-old soldier met his companion at a tavern, where he became intoxicated and met a white woman who he said appeared about nineteen; she took him back to her home for sex, charging him two dollars and allegedly giving him a gonorrheal infection.
Women who sought a place to have sex with one another did not show up on contact reports, but they have said in oral histories that they generally enjoyed a warm welcome by oblivious hotel employees. One former member of the WAC explained that she and her lover never had any trouble checking into the same hotel room, because “[we] were two nice-looking women. Who would suspect [we] were going to go up and make love! People didn’t think about it then.” Subject to much greater scrutiny, male couples and interracial couples—be they gay or straight—did not enjoy such freedom of access.
Because access to public space in the United States was racialized and segregated, wartime sexual geographies differed between blacks and whites. Before the war, police generally neglected “vice” in African American neighborhoods, but the wartime Social Protection Division pressured police chiefs to pay closer attention. In response to police crackdowns, black men and women avoided hotels, cars, and the outdoors in favor of private residences and rooming houses. This strategy to avoid policing was apparently successful. Social protection officials complained in 1945 that the “colored pattern presents a much more difficult control problem.” In other words, black couples effectively evaded enforcement authorities by having sex in private spaces.
Whites, who had the most mobility and freedom to occupy public space, had sex everywhere during World War II. Couples without access to an apartment or home or who lacked money for a hotel had to get creative. During a time of unprecedented mobility, buses, trains, roadsides, the outdoors, cars, and taxi cabs functioned as sexual spaces. One pair who met at a tavern had intercourse on a nearby roadside, putting them among the five to eight percent of exposures among army men that took place outdoors. “Evylan” met her evening’s companion at a bus depot, where about six percent of army men met their contacts. Somewhere between Washington, D.C., and Lexington, Virginia, Evylan and her companion got off the bus and had intercourse in the woods. Other sources reveal additional locations for sex that were suited to settlements near military camps, such as tourist cabins, trailers, empty buildings, barns, and fields. Newspapers such as the Chicago Daily Tribune noted yet more unconventional places, such as cemeteries, the grandstands of racetracks, and even steam tunnels under streets (which prompted the University of Chicago to place special locks on its manhole covers). Local newspapers reported on young people’s sexual adventures with (disapproving) candor, raising awareness of sexual nonconformity and generating concern about the war’s erosion of sexual morality.
Contact reports allow historians of World War II to put the sex back into the history of sexuality, seeing servicemen and civilian women as sexual beings for whom wartime mobilization brought unique opportunities for sexual connections and commerce, not only in taverns and brothels, but along the many paths that men and women traveled and in the many spaces that they fleetingly inhabited. These sources also suggest that heterosexual life in the mid-20th century was less private than we might assume and that individuals seeking sex enlisted remarkable creativity in identifying partners, choosing locations, and evading wartime authorities (if not sexually transmitted infections). Casual and diverse sexual practices on the home front stimulated a public recognition of the divergence between formal sexual standards and actual sexual behavior that outlasted the renewed conservatism of the long postwar decade and fostered the liberationist sexual ethics of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Amanda Littauer is an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Her research focuses on 20th-century sexual culture, the history of women and girls in the modern U.S., and LGBT history. Publications include Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties (UNC Press, 2015), “Scouts, Tomboys, and the History of Girls and Girlhood,” “‘Someone to Love’: Teen Girls’ Same-Sex Desire in the 1950s United States,” and “The B-Girl Evil: Bureaucracy, Sexuality, and the Menace of Barroom Vice in Postwar California.” Her new research focuses on histories of queer youth from the 1940s through the 1970s. Amanda is co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History. She tweets from @amandalittauer.
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