‘Khaki-mad’: The gendered approach to venereal disease in World War Two

Danielle Broadhurst investigates how Victorian legislation targeted female sexuality as a key proponent of venereal disease in the Second World War.

On the Australia home front during the Second World War, social interactions between servicemen from the United States and Australia with Australian women caused widespread concern about sexual disease and a loss of wartime morality. These anxieties ushered in systems of control in which moral concerns regarding female sexuality often overruled medical realities. The Australian government introduced the National Security (Venereal Diseases and Contraceptives) Regulations in 1942 with the aim of regulating the home front, particularly the sexual health of U.S. soldiers and Australian women.

A publication issued by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 1943 suggested that the service of alcohol to women should be restricted in order to curb the rise in venereal diseases. In response, an unidentified nurse sent a letter to the Department of Health in June 1943, describing the shortcomings of this proposal. Sadly, this individual’s name is lost to the historical record. The nurse protested that the restrictions were unfair, as they targeted the irresponsible behaviour exhibited by some women, but not all. Evidently embittered, she emphatically made her case in no less than 365 words, underlining how placing restrictions on women was a thoroughly one-sided, sexist approach to the issue of venereal disease. She further protested that the act revoked rights that no one had the authority to remove:

[The restriction] proposes to take away their God given right of it in moderation & puts them in the same category as the Australian Aboriginal who get served with liquor by stealth. This sounds “Hitlerite” & no man or body of men possess the right to do it.

However, wartime measures authorised the placement of such restrictions on women. Under the National Security Act, the Governor-General could legislate without the approval of the Parliament. Prime Minister Robert Menzies argued that this enabled fast action. As Australian institutions were based on a foundation of freedoms, the liberties of the public would be protected by the integrity of ministers. Stuart Waghorne and Stuart Macintyre have written on the implications of the National Security Act. Even as the Australian government promised the preservation of liberty, these acts infringed upon women’s rights and privacy.

“VENEREAL DISEASE IS A KILLER” by John Normal Shield for the NSW Department of Public Health (1943). Image via National Archives of Australia.

Despite protestation from Australian women, Victoria had already implemented the suggested measures. In December 1942, just three months after the introduction of the National Security (Venereal Diseases and Contraceptives) Regulation, the Victorian Liquor Control Order No. 7. revoked all previous state liquor control orders. Whilst wartime venereal disease regulations attempted to address the medical concerns behind the disease, Victoria’s Liquor Control Order attempted to control the social environment from which it spread.

At least on paper, the state venereal diseases and National Security Regulations did not discriminate between genders, but the Liquor Control Order did. While the legal drinking age for men was 18, the order raised the age for women to 21. Women were also prevented from accessing alcohol, with the order prohibiting the service and sale of liquor in public bars to women. Further, it was illegal for women to consume alcohol even if it had been purchased for her by a man. Couples could be found in public places and dance halls, and as a precaution they were placed under a clause of prohibition to prevent social interaction mixing with the influence of alcohol.

In her study of the Melbourne Home Front, Kate Darian-Smith has identified these measures as the legal exclusion of women from the masculine sphere of the public bar. The concern was motivated, Darian-Smith argues, by the likelihood of forgetting to take precaution against disease when under the influence. Many believed restricting female liquor consumption would curb the spread of venereal disease. The relation between venereal diseases and drinking is questionable, though it was believed the influence of alcohol caused carelessness and indifference, while lowering the immune system. The combination, according to the military booklet on Standards of Prophylaxis, Treatment and cure of Venereal Disease, supposedly led to a lack of morality and higher susceptibility to disease and infection.

The rise in venereal disease was associated with the emergence of the amateur – described in the letter as a ‘society dame.’ Journalists and politicians unanimously agreed that the ‘khaki-mad dabbler in sex’ had become ‘public enemy no.1 – an amateur saboteur.’ Attempts to define the typical amateur were futile, because while it was the younger generation of women who bore the brunt of ridicule, a cross section of society was believed to be caught up in the ‘glamour of uniform.’ She could be under-aged, vagrant, single or married and represented in any class of society. Salt concluded that ‘their only common traits are sex ignorance and promiscuity.’ An amateur challenged moral standard, drank alcohol and could be seen exhibiting public displays of affection with both U.S. and Australian soldiers.

“HOPE” by John Normal Shield for the NSW Department of Public Health (1943). Image via National Archives of Australia.

Restricting the availability of alcohol to these women was a measure of controlling the threat the amateur posed to a healthy nation. The amateur originally emerged during the First World War and the 1920s. She was the ‘clandestine’ or ‘privateer’ who worked part time to avoid state control. She did not carry the same anxiety that became present in the 1940s. The amateur of the Second World War posed a new problem and did not identify as a sex worker because there was no exchange of money. She was more ‘dangerous’ than a professional sex worker as she appeared innocent, but was likely just as infectious. Around 80-85 per cent of all venereal cases reported from an amateur source. A very complicated figure, references to her and her presence across the early twentieth century come from notable gender historians such as Rae Frances, Marilyn Lake and Lisa Featherstone.

‘Severe Restrictions’ will have no effect on those women who abuse drink, as they will always be supplied, particularly now, when there are so many Allied Servicemen with money ‘to burn’ money talks, & the society dame will alas get all she wants & more.

Publications on venereal disease warned against these female carriers. Statements in Standards of Prophylaxis – claiming, ‘You never pick up anything worth having from the street’ and that ‘most women of easy virtue contract V.D. eventually’ – commonly expressed the views surrounding these women. This sentiment was both publicly known in the print media and circulated by the military and government.

A six-point plan introduced in November 1944 recommended measures from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Committee on Social Security. Points one to four were concerned with reasonable steps that could be taken by relevant government authorities. Yet the final points of the plan were driven by societal perception. Point five suggested filling hours of leisure with physical activity like sports recreation, and point six expressed a need for the ‘social rehabilitation and treatment of the promiscuous girl.’

Benefactors to society should concentrate their activities to reforming young men in regards drink… It’s so very easy to blame the women when our misdeeds are under review &     conveniently forget the other half- sinful man.

The Parliamentary Committee on Social Security further stated that difficulty controlling these promiscuous young girls was a main problem of the venereal disease rise on the home front. Evidently most of the commentary and decision-making revolved around solving this ‘problem.’ Though as our nurse highlighted, it was so very easy to forget the other half of the party responsible for the transmission of venereal diseases. Furthermore, the generalisation of women as amateurs was problematic, with only a small portion of the population partaking in what could be considered ‘irresponsible’ behaviour. Arguably it was not these girls who were the problem. Rather, it was the construction of female sexuality as a deviance that required control, rehabilitation and treatment that was the real problem.

For more primary sources on this topic, see National Archives of Australia: A 192, 267/1 Venereal Disease General (Section 3) and MP 742/1 211/6/226 Venereal Disease Treatment, military booklet.


Danielle Broadhurst completed her Bachelor of Arts (Hons) at Monash University in 2017 titled, “‘The GI, the digger, the school girl tarts’: The Enforcement of Venereal Disease Regulations on the Melbourne Home Front, 1939-1945.” Her research interests include Australian social, political and gender histories. In 2018, Danielle will conduct research as a Summer Vacation Scholar for the Australian War Memorial.

Follow her on Twitter @broadhurstory.

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