Thanks to Fox News host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, we get to revisit the public health lessons of the First and Second World Wars.
In a recent address to the Republican National Committee, Huckabee excoriated Democrats for making women believe they were “helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing…birth control because they cannot control their libido…”
Ironically, if we were to change a few words in that remark—“Uncle Sugar” to “Uncle Sam,” and “female” to “male”—we’d find ourselves transported back to 1942.
Huckabee might be surprised to learn that during World War II, Uncle Sam was providing condoms to men who could not control their libidos. As Vice Admiral, Joel T. Boone of the United States Navy explained at the time: “We cannot stifle the instincts of man, we cannot legislate his appetite.We can only educate him to caution, watchfulness, and the perpetual hazards of promiscuous intercourse; and furnish him with adequate prevention measures.”
The military needed to protect its men. They needed to be on the battlefield, not in the infirmary getting treated for sexually transmitted diseases. So the armed forces furnished their men in uniform with condoms. “[A]s many as fifty million condoms were sold or freely distributed each month during the war,” Harvard historian Allan Brandt wrote in No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880.
While the emphasis was on keeping the military fit to fight, rather than on preventing unwanted births, two facts stand out: the U.S. government supplied or subsidized condoms. And it did so because it knew that neither the best lectures on morality nor threats against those who contracted a disease could not stop the male libido. (For a brief history of condoms, scroll down to the third video here.)
There was, pardon the term, hard evidence for this. While other nations’ militaries issued condoms to their forces in World War I, U.S. forces took a different approach to social hygiene: lectures and posters moralized about sex, screenings sought to identify those who were sick, and prophylaxis stations treated those who had been exposed to venereal infections. The military deemed women the villains in this public health crisis. And in a massive abridgement of civil rights, approximately 30,000 women living near medical encampments in the United States—many of them prostitutes, although they were never convicted—were forcibly detained in federal facilities for quarantine and medical treatment, with some held for as long as a year. The moralizing, the warnings, the education, and the incarceration of women, didn’t do the job. Brandt reports that the military lost seven million days of active duty during World War I and spent $50 million on treatment. Meanwhile, combatants from other nations had lower rates of venereal disease as a result of condom distribution.
And so, when the United States entered World War II, the government began supplying condoms. Or, as Mike Huckabee might put it, Uncle Sam learned from experience that men couldn’t control their libidos. The larger message is this: instead of talking about libidos—men’s or women’s—we need to respect individuals’ sexual choices and support and provide the medical technologies that will enable them to avoid disease or pregnancy. Those are freedoms worth fighting for.
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