Advertising in the 1940s was dominated by a sense of patriotism—images of men in uniform and women contributing to the pro-war efforts. While the growth of radio was on the horizon, print ads were just as prolific as the spread of STDs among American soldiers. As men were dying by the thousands on the front lines, those who managed to survive the battles by day were faced with more dangerous enemies by night.
Sexual health posters popular at the time suggest that syphilis and gonorrhea were able to romp through our troops as fast as the women who carried them. While today these diseases may not be as big of a concern for our armed forces, during World War II the incidence of STDs was estimated to be 43 out of every 1,000 soldiers even rising as high as 190 out of every 1,000 during the U.S. occupation of Germany.
Throughout the 1940s, fear-based approaches were directed at young, sexually active soldiers as a means of STD prevention. In addition to posters, new recruits entering the war were made to watch educational videos, commonly nicknamed “Susie Rotten-crotch” films, featuring soldiers having sex with local prostitutes, only to eventually be stricken with gonorrhea and syphilis. Until penicillin became recognized as an efficacious treatment for syphilis in the mid-1940s, public health efforts encouraged soldiers to resist the temptation of prostitutes who were apparently teeming with venereal diseases. The later introduction of antibiotic treatments resulted in a significant decline in STD rates in the U.S.
In a style reminiscent of wartime propaganda, these posters characterize the portrayal of ‘loose’ women as contributors to the spread of STDs, with strong messages to the soldiers to think twice before suffering from eternal regret. While gender roles drastically changed by the end of the 1940s with an increase in women joining the workforce, women entertaining to the sexual proclivities of soldiers were often presented as dirty and disease-ridden.
Although the notion of blaming women for the transmission of STDs was popularized by these posters, current estimates offer a polarizing viewpoint. According to a CDC report, the burden of STDs in the U.S. is not as female-centric as it has long-been portrayed. Females are attributed with 54% of all new and existing STDs, compared to 46% among males. When looking at individual STDs such as syphilis, the statistics are even more drastic with men having much higher numbers of infections than women. As of 2011, men who have sex with men (MSM) represented 72% of all syphilis cases in the U.S.
Societal views of women being weak and responsible for the rapid transmission of STDs have persisted even since the height of these posters in the 1940s. A New York Times article outlining controversies surrounding the HPV vaccine highlights the struggle faced by the CDC to finally recommend that males also receive the vaccine against the virus that was strongly associated with sexually active girls.
The initial HPV vaccination campaign brought with it a lot of backlash. “My daughter is so not sexually active that it seems premature to even think about protecting her from cervical cancer,” one mother told NPR in an interview, following recommendations from her family pediatrician to have her 11-year-old daughter vaccinated.
Although social views on the spread of venereal diseases may have changed, most of the sexual health posters during World War II pictured women as being seductive, promiscuous creatures, baiting soldiers to have sex, thereby putting them at risk for syphilis and gonorrhea.
Though “good time” girls and “procurable” women were the focus of anti-STD campaigns during World War II, the evolution of public health advertising has brought with it strong attention to getting tested and the use of contraceptives to curb the spread of STDs that we see today.
Portrayals of women as being the source of sexually transmitted diseases paralleled by the early discussions around the HPV vaccine have shifted as a result of epidemiological data providing insights to the true trends of STDs by gender.
By nature, sexual health ads tend to be racier and more provocative than those in other areas, loaded with innuendos and double meanings. And as these posters reflect the perceptions that prevailed at the time, they also force us to think about the role of public health advertising in both promoting and challenging predominant social attitudes.
Edited by Dana March.