Sex and the Military

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Sex and the Military. The sexual behavior of those in the military, and attitudes and policies related to that behavior, provide important vantage points from which to examine the interactions between civil society and the military society. In the United States, sexual stereotypes are powerful and have helped guide the creation of military policies and regulations. “Natural” and generally different sexual behaviors and attitudes are often associated with being male or female. These understandings, to some degree, have changed over time and certainly are influenced by such factors as culture, race, and age. In times of crisis, particularly wartime, established norms may be contradicted by expediency or military needs and thus force the adoption of quite different practices, regardless of stated ideals.

During the Revolutionary War, it was common for armies to rely on accompanying wives of soldiers, military families, or “camp followers” to provide a range of support services, including sexual ones. During the Civil War, prostitutes were allowed into army camps and probably performed other than sexual “chores” as well. As Estelle Freedman and John D'Emilio have argued in Intimate Matters (1988), the Civil War “facilitated the expansion of prostitution,” increasing the number of women set adrift socially by the war who had few other options for survival, and providing a mass market of men in training and camp. Officials of the Union army became concerned about exposure of soldiers to sexually transmitted diseases, and therefore experimented with regulating prostitution through medical examinations.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, prostitution had become a focus of social reformers and public health officials. There was, however, disagreement as to whether prostitution posed primarily a moral or a health threat to American society. As U.S. entry into World War I drew closer, the War Department sought to make military camps safe from both immorality and venereal diseases. As Allan Brandt notes in No Magic Bullet (1987), Secretary of War Newton Baker believed that it was the government's responsibility to maintain order and heighten “soldier's moral rectitude.” In April 1917, Baker created the Commission on Training Camp Activities, which used education and organized recreational activities to keep soldiers morally and physically fit. Additionally, a moral reform section of the Conscription Act of 1917 prohibited prostitution or the sale of liquor near training camps; this resulted in new attempts to control prostitutes, who were described as “disease spreaders and friends of the enemy,” and led to government closing of bordellos in New Orleans, Memphis, and a host of other cities.

In this case, military needs and policies carried into the civilian sphere. By March 1918, thirty‐two states had passed laws requiring compulsory medical exams for prostitutes. However, once American troops reached France, the issue of health and efficiency overcame moral goals, and eventually preventive medical programs against sexual diseases were instituted and prophylaxis mandated. As Brandt concludes, these policies “unhinged the alliance with moral reformers at home.”

During World War II, educational programs much like those of the previous war were utilized, and vice activities near medical installations were made a federal offense under the May Act of 1941. Training films showed the ravages of advanced syphilis and gonorrhea. However, officials also recognized that they could not fully control sexual behavior and thus provided condoms, as well as subsequent treatment for infections (especially effective after the introduction of penicillin in 1944). At first the army rejected anyone with venereal disease, but by 1942 it changed the policy to allow induction if the cases were not complicated. The military also abandoned the regulation that imposed penalties on those with venereal disease.

Reflecting postwar prudery, the military in the 1950s returned to an emphasis on education and moral exhortations, but these did not create substantive changes. The target in subsequent decades would be the health and efficiency of the armed forces. This would be complicated when AIDS became a nationally recognized health issue; in 1985, the Department of Defense mandated screening of new recruits for the HIV antibody and rejection of those infected.

Just as military responses to prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases resembled a balancing act between social values and institutional needs, so military attitudes toward and treatment of homosexuality also illustrated the contradictions between theory and practice. Most social historians agree that it was not until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that homosexuals were “scientifically” defined as personality “types” and individuals self‐identified as homosexuals. In the World War I era, both the army and the navy punished “sodomists” for their criminal acts. In 1916, assault with intent to commit sodomy was made a felony, and, in 1919, sodomy, the act itself, usually defined as anal and sometimes oral sex between men, became a crime, meriting appropriate court‐martial and five or more years of imprisonment. Publicity and protest surrounding several such cases brought congressional investigations in 1920 and a report in 1921 that mandated an end to such punishments because “perversion” was not a crime but a disease.

Between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, the medical world, and society more generally, adopted the view of homosexuality as “abnormal” and therefore an illness. During World War II, questioning and psychiatric tests were used to prevent homosexuals from entering the services, with limited success. By 1942, the first restrictions on inducting homosexuals were enacted, and a year later a complete ban on homosexuals in the services became the rule. Those already in uniform “found” to be homosexual were deemed unsuitable for military service and received undesirable discharges. Alan Berube argues that, regardless of policy, because of manpower shortages during World War II, most homosexuals were tolerated. Scholars of gay and lesbian history point to an unintended result of this wartime focus on homosexuality—the creation of homosexual identity and subcultures among these military personnel that lasted long after the war ended.

During the 1970s and 1980s, legal challenges to the ban on homosexuals increased, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton sought to use his executive authority to allow homosexuals in the armed forces. However, strong public and military opposition to that stand left the ban in place, modified somewhat by Senator Sam Nunn's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” compromise policy.

Separate spheres for men and for women generally kept women out of the more permanent and institutionalized military structures of the nineteenth century, but by World War I, with the establishment of a permanent Army and Navy Nurse Corps, and particularly with the establishment of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in World War II, certain matters of sexual behavior had to be addressed. Primary among these would be women's sexual activity, marriage, and reproductive roles. Before World War II, the Army Nurse Corps would not accept married women, and discharge was automatic if a nurse married. Illegitimate pregnancy and morals offenses were causes for dishonorable dismissal.

World War II brought large numbers of women into all the services and prompted a reexamination of some of the existing sexual regulations. Married women could enter the women's uniformed services (the WAC, WAVES, and SPARS), and single women who married in the service could leave voluntarily, a decision not available to men. Women, unlike men, had to provide proof that their spouses and children were dependents in order for them to receive support benefits. Women could still be discharged from the service for pregnancy (or for adopting or for acquiring stepchildren), but the decisions were left up to each service and waivers were possible. At one point during World War II, the surgeon general proposed full sexual instruction and distribution of condoms to all women in the newly formed Women's Army Corps. WAC director Col. Oveta Culp Hobby rejected the plan as undermining her efforts to keep the women sexless and “respectable.” During the war, WACs did receive training lectures condemning sexual relationships between women. However, officers were instructed not to engage in witch‐hunts of lesbians. This was consistent with Culp Hobby's effort to protect the reputations of service women and to counter misogynous sexual stereotyping of military women as lesbians or prostitutes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the traditional military policies toward women came under attack, and reforms were instituted. The changes were the result first of civil rights legislation, feminist politics, and sexual revolution. Second, by 1973, the adoption of an All‐Volunteer Force created new and sometimes different “manpower” needs (women soon comprised more than 10% of the armed forces). Certain technological and strategic changes also altered many traditional gender exclusions in military occupation specialties in most of the services. (The navy generally remained the most resistant to change, the air force generally the most amenable.) A series of court cases and DoD investigations and policy changes in the 1970s resulted in women obtaining the same dependent rights as men and made discharge for pregnancy voluntary. It is now common for lectures on pregnancy and sexual awareness to be a part of command indoctrination programs. As the controversies surrounding the navy's 1991 “Tailhook” Convention demonstrate, the military's continuing discharges of gays and lesbians, issues of sexual harassment and sexual stereotyping, differential treatment for men and women, and debate over segregated training and combat exclusion all remain problems within military institutions, as they do within society at large.
[See also Gay Men and Lesbians in the Military; Gender and War; Gender: Female Identity and the Military; Gender: Male Identity and the Military; Sexual Harassment; Women in the Military.]


Jeanne Holm , Women in the Military, 1982; 2nd ed., 1992.
David R. Segal and H. Wallance Sinaiko, eds., Life in the Rank and File, 1986.
Allan Brandt , No Magic Bullet, 1987.
Estelle Freedman and and John D'Emilio , Intimate Matters, 1988.
Alan Berube , Coming Out Under Fire: History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, 1990.
Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, eds., Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, 1992.
Leisa D. Meyer , Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women's Army Corps During World War II, 1996.
Nancy Bristow , Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War, 1996.

Jane Slaughter