She May Look Clean But

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She May Look Clean But


By: Anonymous

Date: early 1940s

Source: National Library of Medicine

About the Author: This poster was produced by the United States government during World War II (1938–1945) as part of its campaign against venereal disease among troops.


This poster was one of a large number of propaganda posters produced by the U.S. Government and other governments, especially during the first and second World Wars, to warn military personnel about the dangers of contracting venereal diseases (now called sexually-transmitted diseases, STDS) from prostitutes or, in this case, "pick-ups [and] good-time girls." The Axis, referred to at the bottom of the poster ("You can't beat the Axis if you get VD") was the enemy alliance of fascist states comprising Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. The poster warns explicitly of syphilis and gonorrhea, both sexually transmitted diseases. As both of these diseases are caused by bacteria, they can be treated by antibiotics, such as penicillin; however, supplies of penicillin were very limited during World War II, and the drug was reserved mostly for combat injuries during the early years of the war. By 1944, penicillin was mass-produced and more available for the treatment of STDs.

This particular poster is typical in that it shows an attractive woman and identifies her as a possible source of infection. It was also commonplace for such posters to appeal to patriotism, as this one does (another typi-cal poster says "Venereal disease helps the enemy"). It is unusual, however, in that the woman portrayed is an idealized "girl next door," not highly sexualized in appearance, who "looks clean" (i.e., free from venereal disease). Most posters warning servicemen against venereal disease portrayed women instantly identifiable as prostitutes in the visual code of the day: wearing heavy make-up, smoking cigarettes, leaning against the outsides of buildings at night.



See primary source image.


Understanding of the mechanisms of infectious disease only became scientifically possible during the mid to late nineteenth century. By World War I (1915–1918), the bacterial causes of STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea—the two most serious common STDs—were well understood, but treatment lagged. Tuberculosis was also on the rise due to rabid urbanization with attended poor housing, water, and sanitation. Tuberculosis was the first infectious disease to be targeted by a national coordinated education and propaganda campaign, and this was the first time public-health officials availed themselves of the technique of the poster. The poster form had first been developed in the late nineteenth century for commercial advertising. During World Wars I and II, it was used extensively by the Allies and Germany for a variety of propaganda purposes; posters urged recycling, enlistment, caution when talking about defense-related information, job safety, general patriotism, and avoidance of venereal disease.

Posters are not the only method that has been employed by the military to raise anti-VD consciousness among troops. Films (including a famous 1973 Walt Disney short called "VD Attack Plan"), lectures, pamphlets, and distribution of free condoms to troops have also been used. The military opened free specialized treatment stations for military personnel in Europe during World War II.

The efficacy of posters and other education methods against the spread of STDs among troops, especially those stationed in countries where they can mingle freely with the population, must, however, be doubted. In 1967, during the Vietnam War, it was officially admitted that the rate of infection of troops by STDs was ten times higher than the civilian rate at home. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler told Congress that "It must be admitted that VD prevention campaigns within the services are not eminently successful." A 1972 fact sheet for the Army's First Cavalry Division stated that the rate of STD infection was 226.3 soldiers per one thousand, about 3.75 times the sickness rate from all other causes combined. An Air Force document from 1966 put the rate in that branch of the service at 541 per one thousand.

STDs continue to be a major health-care concern of the U.S. military. A 1993 study of 1,744 male sailors found that forty-nine percent reported sexual contact with a prostitute before deployment on a six-month cruise and twenty-two percent reported a history of STDs; during the six-month deployment, forty-two percent reported sexual contact with a prostitute and ten percent acquired a new STD. The study concluded that "U.S. military personnel frequently engage in high-risk sexual behavior and that there is a continued need for comprehensive and culturally-sensitive STD prevention programs." A 2002 study of 1,028 U.S. Marines found that recent STDs were identified in 7.4 percent of subjects, and thirty-four percent reported a history of STDs.



Malone, J.D., et al. "Risk Factors for Sexually-Transmitted Diseases Among Deployed U.S. Military Personnel." Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 1993 Sep-Oct; 20(5):294-8.

Murphy, Clare. "Abortion Ship Makes Waves in Poland." BBC News. July 1, 2003. Available at 〈〉 (accessed April 5, 2006).

Web sites

National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division. "Visual Culture and Public Health Posters: Infectious Disease: Venereal Disease.". 〈〉 (accessed April 5, 2006).