He ‘picked up’ more than a girl.” This was the beginning line of a PSA issued by the Canadian government during the Second World War.
Typical sensationalism, but the meaning of those words, written over a cracked, crimson skeleton, is unmistakable: It’s a warning against venereal disease (VD). But VD wasn’t just a side-effect of WW II, it has been a little talked about battle waged by soldiers for centuries. Today, however, that’s starting to change.
But in the mid-19th century, VD was a military problem that transcended cultures, countries and classes. The French called gonorrhea “la goutte militaire.” The British, meanwhile, mandated inspections and incarcerations of female civilian carriers in the 1860s. And many years later, militaries experienced much the same during the world wars.
Those conflicts created an unprecedented separation of male and female populations, sparking transformative moments for gender and sexuality identities. But with newfound experiences came newfound risk.
During the First World War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was the top conduit for VDs in the Allied forces, averaging almost double the infection rates of Australian and British soldiers during the winter of 1914. By 1915, 28.7 per cent of the CEF was infected with a VD.
There was another wave of VD during the Second World War. Canada’s labour force lost more than half a million days due to VD. But unlike during the Great War, the country was equipped with a powerful antidote to counter the threat: the Health League of Canada.
Founded by Captain Gordon Bates after WW I, the league was a direct response to calls for help with VD. It prioritized sex education, just with a slight twist typical for its time: based on high moral standards.
28.7 per cent
of the CEF
was infected with some
type of VD.
“[The Canadian military] very much wanted to…improve the morality of…soldiers and encourage them not to seek out sexual partners that they weren’t married to,” said health and medicine historian Catherine Carstairs.
Rather than focus on testing and treatment, chastity and moral sex education reigned supreme, with most programs failing to understand that military men often turned to sex to cope with the intense stress of war. And being diagnosed with VD was seen as a “character flaw,” meant to be punished, not treated.
During both world wars, infected military men could expect pay freezes, medical segregation, fines and neither canteen nor entertainment privileges while in treatment, with many left in claustrophobic medical centres equally as punishing. In the First World War, for instance, the venereal ward of the Military Base Hospital in Toronto would bar windows and entrances to keep patients from escaping. Degrading and often ineffective methods of diagnosis were routine at the time, such as the “short arm parade” where male genitalia were forcibly inspected for VD.
The Canadian military also conducted contact-tracing on potential military or civilian sources of VD, and even operated surveillance and patrols in areas believed to have high infection rates. Indeed, it labelled some such regions as completely “out of bounds” for soldiers.
“Particularly, we do want the men to [realize] the importance of obtaining the name and address of any and every girl companion,” wrote a draft memorandum about contact-tracing to the First Canadian Army. “The girls will be flattered.”
In a letter home, one private wrote, “every damn place is out of bounds to the Canadians…Most of the boys are wondering if Canada will be ‘Out of bounds.’”
Carstairs points out how women with VD were particularly targeted during the Second World War, being subjected to horrific, unnecessarily painful gynecological examinations. “That can be quite a demeaning process in and of itself,” said Carstairs. “It [this treatment] seems to have stemmed from the fact that these women deserve to be punished for their sins.”
As individuals with VD were treated like second-class citizens, stigma, silence and secrecy shrouded their diagnosis and treatment. A major survey on VD between 1838-1939 found that most military members had negative views of VD.
This history continued into the 21st century, albeit with a new name: sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
In 2018, the rates of STIs among men in the Candian Armed Forces were double that of their civilian counterparts. STIs such as chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea were on the rise in young males of the CAF, while rates among serving women and older men remained low and stable.
A lack of STI awareness and prevention was particularly damaging to members. Over the years, however, the CAF has introduced new and improved programs to address the issue, after seeing the success such initiatives have had in other militaries.
At recruit training centres in the U.S., for instance, the number of STIs are decreasing as contraceptive use and knowledge about safe sex is increasing with the implementation of modern, stigma-free programs. These initiatives often included secondary prevention strategies such as mass screening and online and social media educational presentations about STI transmission, symptoms and prevention.
“[Such work] has evolved over time…to something that is a bit more empowering of individuals towards making healthy choices,” said Dr. Vincent Beswick-Escanlar, a CAF physician.
Beswick-Escanlar noted that CAF initiatives include education on risk factors and symptoms of STIs. The programs also work to destigmatize and emphasize the importance of treatment. Plus, access to contraceptives and medical care are now widely available. The action is showing promising results.
As the CAF continues to adapt to the needs of its members, Beswick-Escanlar and many other health professionals hope that STI rates among younger military men will begin to decline with more education.
“Sexual health is part of your health,” said Beswick-Escanlar. “Take it seriously.”