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Sex on the Homefront

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The historian Amanda Littauer has a new book titled Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties. She summarizes what I assume is part of it in this really fascinating post on mapping a landscape of sex on the homefront during World War II, using the military’s medical reports on soldiers contracting venereal disease as her chief primary sources.

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.

The Army tried to crackdown on prostitution during the war and was pretty successful, but as Littauer points out, it made no difference to VD rates because there was tons of unpaid sex happening as well and the military had to way to control that.

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