Gender - Sexuality

[Excerpt below is from Chapter 6 of War and Gender]

For information about this book, and a discussion forum, click below:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)

Poster, pinup with grid
Poster for training US pilots to read map grids, WWII

"Joshua Goldstein's book redefines what we think of both 'war' and 'gender.' It is simply the most disturbing account of the link between sex and violence yet written. Finally, we have a truly multi-disciplinary study of the subject. Distressing, and convincing."
-- Joanna Bourke (School of History, Classics and Archaeology, U. of London)


Hypothesis 6A holds that men’s participation in combat harnesses the male sex drive – by the promise of a sexual reward for combat or possibly by aggression-enhancing properties of male sexuality – in ways that would be disrupted by the presence of women combatants.

Sex in wartime

Soldiers show an “almost universal preoccupation with sex” – an “obsession with sex in a community of men…deprived of usual social and emotional outlets.” A British officer in World War I concluded that “[m]ost soldiers were ready to have sexual intercourse with almost any woman whenever they could.” As one US soldier in World War II wrote: “army conversation has a beautiful simplicity and directness. It is all on one solid, everlasting subject…Women, Women, Women.” Or, another: “Anyone entering military service for the first time can only be astonished by soldiers’ concentration upon the subject of women and, more especially, upon the sexual act. The most common word in [their] mouths…does duty as adjective, adverb, verb, noun, and in any other form it can possibly be used.”3

US and British military culture in World War II promoted this preoccupation with sex. Over 5 million copies of Life magazine’s 1941 photo of Rita Hayworth (captioned the “Goddess of Love”) were sent out to US soldiers. Such “pin-ups” were ubiquitous among US forces. They were published not only in men’s magazines but in service publications like Stars and Stripes (or for Britain, Reveille). The appeal of the “undisputed leader,” Betty Grable, “was less erotic than as a wholesome symbol of American womanhood,” based on a “carefully groomed exploitation of her good-natured hominess by 20th Century-Fox.” Hayworth, however, the “runner-up” to Grable, “exuded the sultry sex appeal of a mature woman” whose “appeal was more erotic than wholesome.” Jane Russell’s “flamboyant sex appeal made her pin-ups wildly popular with GIs overseas.” Her large breasts were shamelessly exploited by movie producers as “the two great reasons for [her] rise to stardom.” Moralists at home opposed the pin-up craze. In 1944, the Postmaster General banned Esquire with its Vargas Girl fantasies, and Congressional hearings ensued. However, officers decided that pin-ups contributed to soldiers’ morale. In Britain, meanwhile, the cartoon heroine “Jane” boosted morale during the Blitz and thereafter by taking her clothes off during periods of bad news. “It was said that the first armored vehicle ashore on D-Day carried a large representation of naked Jane.” The comic-strip Jane “finally lost the last vestiges of her modesty during the Normandy campaign” in 1944, and soldiers said, “Jane gives her all.”4

Disruption of social norms Whatever other roles male sexuality may play, armies segregate large numbers of post-adolescent males for extended periods, thereby creating a kind of critical mass of pent-up sexual desire. In wartime, social norms are disrupted and soldiers often operate far from home, with new sexual opportunities and motives. The disruption of normal sexual patterns was noted empirically by a New Orleans “madam” whose business increased when America entered World War I: “I’ve noticed it before, the way the idea of war and dying makes a man raunchy… It wasn’t really pleasure at times, but a kind of nervous breakdown that could only be treated with a girl and a set to.”5

Wars lift social taboos, disrupt relationships, and send large groups of young men far from home. Sociological explanations “fasten upon the uprooting character of war experience…[and the] artificial separation of the sexes.” The men see prostitutes, with and without military blessing, and sometimes form relationships with local women (whose relationships may also have been disrupted). Promiscuity increases as people are less focused on the long-term future. A US soldier in France in World War II wrote to his father that he planned to “get my fun where I can get it while I’m still alive. And to hell with tomorrow – it may never come.” As Figure 6.1 implies, US airmen in England who beat the odds by surviving could have sex after a mission (consistent with the testosterone boost produced by a “win”; see pp. 153–55). None of this means that increased sexuality underlies male soldiers’ aggressiveness in the war, however. Rather, war may simply disrupt social norms, with sexual changes as a result (another case of reverse causality from war to gender).6

Image under copyright

Figure 6.1 US airmen in England, 1944. [AP/Wide World Photos.]

The sexless front The hypothesized link between aggression and sex is weakened by the fact that in wartime the areas of greatest violence – the front lines – have far less sexual activity than the more peaceful areas behind the lines. Soldiers have a lot of sex in at least some wars, but not at the front. Before World War I, popular European writing was full of misconceptions about the effect that a war would have on sexual impulses. War was seen as “a way to erotic liberation and unlimited expression of sensuality” for both soldiers and civilians. In contrast to these “farflung expectations,” and the “amorous paradises provided at various military war-stations” for a minority of lucky soldiers, the ordinary soldier found that “[i]n the trenches there was no place for sexual life, at least not for a normal one.” This was particularly true of World War I as a mechanized total war that dragged on for years.7

According to Hirschfeld, soldiers in the trenches had few outlets for sexual energy and suffered “sex hunger” on a massive scale – an “oppressive sex starvation.” Sex hunger was compounded in World War I by the close quarters of men at the front, which often made even masturbation impractical. (In World War II, by contrast, one soldier was more often alone in a foxhole, although a great stigma still attached to masturbation.) Masturbation, “widespread in every army…became far more widespread” during World War I. A much-quoted Austrian fighter quipped: “Formerly my wife was my right hand, now my right hand is my wife.” Hirschfeld claims that bestiality provided another substitute outlet created by the sexual starvation of the war. A military physician posted with a division of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Italian front reportedly thought that at least 10 percent of the men had sex with animals (usually their horses). Psychological problems after the war often included sexual dysfunction, such as inability to maintain an erection, well after returning to civilian life. Hirschfeld, opposed to masturbation, bestiality, homosexuality, and prostitution alike, argues that the sex hunger of World War I contributed greatly to its dehumanizing effects.8

In World War II, although soldiers were very lonely, “sexual deprivation and inordinate desire generally did not trouble men on the front line. They were too scared, busy, hungry, tired, and demoralized to think about sex at all. Indeed, the front was the one wartime place that was sexless.”9

Sex in the rear Behind the lines, by contrast, sex flourished in World War II. By one calculation, the average US soldier who served in Europe from D-Day through the end of the war had sex with 25 women. The peak was reached after the surrender of Germany in 1945. Condoms had to be rationed at four per man per month and medical officers considered this “entirely inadequate.” A 1945 US army survey “revealed that the level of promiscuity among the troops was far higher than officially admitted, and rates rose in direct proportion to the amount of time the men had spent overseas.” Over 80 percent of those who had been away over two years admitted to having regular sexual intercourse. In US-occupied Italy, three-quarters of US soldiers had intercourse with Italian women, on average once or twice a month. About three-quarters of these paid with cash and the rest with rationed food, or nothing. The survey showed that fewer than half the US soldiers used condoms.10

When German territory fell to the Allies in 1945, a US policy against fraternization with German women was widely flouted, and an “epidemic of promiscuity” ensued. Many German women were openly receptive to relationships with the occupying troops, if only because the latter had food and cigarettes. Thus sex became “a commodity to be traded for the necessities of life.” As a US staff sergeant explained, the fraternization policy worked almost like Prohibition except that “a guy could hide a bottle inside his coat for days at a time, but it is hard to keep a German girl quiet in there for more than a couple of hours.”11

From the soldiers’ perspective, the supply of sex never equaled demand, however. Thus, “desire was constantly seeking an outlet it seldom satisfactorily found.” Sexual mores of the 1940s (incredibly prudish by today’s standards), even under the upheaval of the war, restricted the realm of the imaginable, as did the limited available birth control. Reading ever-so-slightly titillating novels, reciting bawdy verses, sneaking off to masturbate, and “foraging” for local women (prostitutes or otherwise) were the sexual outlets behind the lines.12

War stories that focus on the front rarely discuss sex. For example, historian Stephen Ambrose gives detail-oriented accounts of battles, but only a vague mention that Paris after liberation in 1944 “over the next few days had one of the great parties of the war” (see data on VD rates, p. 342). Ambrose mentions that German soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge were motivated by being told that hospitals in Belgium contained “many American nurses,” and that US airmen in England had “regular and easy access to a London in which a pack of cigarettes would pay for a woman and a night’s worth of booze.” When the huge bureaucracy of the US Army’s Services of Supply moved to Paris, with access to vast quantities of US supplies arriving in Europe, “taking into account what Paris had to sell, from wine and girls to jewels and perfumes, a black market on a grand scale sprang up… The supply troops…got the girls, because they had the money, thanks to the black market.” Ambrose can take for granted that “girls” were a commodity in wartime cities. Aside from these occasional references, however, Ambrose bypasses sex, presumably because it does not matter at the front.13

Uncoerced sex Sex in wartime covers a range of contexts, with women’s voluntary participation at one end (sometimes becoming “war brides”), their implicit or explicit trading of sex for money or food in the middle, and rape at the other extreme. On this continuum, most war-related sex occurs in the middle, but I will begin at the voluntary end. By some reports, “war aphrodisia” – common among soldiers in many wars – extended into many segments of society during “total war.” Thus, among not only soldiers but civilians, “sexual restraint…[was] suspended for the duration.” As one British housewife put it, “We were not really immoral, there was a war on.”14

The million and a half US soldiers who filled England before D-Day in 1944 had a well-deserved reputation as “wolves in wolves’ clothing.” They were, in one British phrase of the time, “oversexed, overpaid, and over here.” England’s men were absent in large numbers, and its women had survived blackout and Blitz. The Americans’ “predatory” behavior with English women offended many people but also led to many relationships, only some of which involved either money or marriage. The US soldiers’ presence contributed to a shake-up of British sexual mores, already under strain from the war. Race riots broke out among the segregated US forces in England after white British women formed relationships with black US soldiers. In Australia, the influx of US soldiers also altered the gender balance.15

Back in the United States, “Victory Girls” gave free sex to soldiers as their “patriotic duty.” A 1942 conference of the American Social Hygiene Association concluded that these promiscuous adolescents (most were under 21 and many under 19) practiced “sexual delinquency of a non-commercial character…[seeking] adventure and sociability.” An Army doctor blamed these young women for troops’ high VD rates: “While mothers are winning the war in the factories, their daughters are losing it on the streets.” The ill-defined “‘victory girl’ was usually assumed to be a woman who pursued sexual relations with servicemen out of a misplaced patriotism or a desire for excitement. She could also, however, be a girl or woman who, without actually engaging in sexual relations, was testing the perimeters of social freedom in wartime America.” A “surprising number were young married women.” One study of 210 women detained on morals charges in Seattle showed that only one-third were single.16

In response to fears of uncontrolled sexuality, a government “social protection” campaign “expanded a health program into a purity campaign dedicated to the search for ‘incipient and confirmed sex delinquents’ who, not coincidentally, happened always to be women.” According to FBI statistics (which tend to undercount local reports), the number of women charged with morals violations doubled in the war years. In Seattle (a “particularly zealous” city), up to 300 women monthly were detained. Although only one-sixth had VD, all had to spend four days in county jail awaiting results of VD tests, whereas their male partners were seldom detained. Detroit banned unescorted women from bars after 8 pm, and in 1945 prosecuted a soldier’s wife and the man she was living with.17

In Germany too, as social control disintegrated at the end of World War II, civilian gender limits expanded. In the Rhineland in 1945, advancing Allied forces found “Edelweiss gangs” of young men in pink shirts and bobby-sox, who “roamed the rubble hurling insults and stones at the Hitler Youth – when they were not trading sexual favors with willing girls.”18

3 Holmes 1985, almost 93, ready 93; Hicks 1995, outlets 28–29; Costello 1985, subject 78; Gray 1959, 59–70, duty 61.

4 Griffin 1992, sent 76; Costello 1985, wholesome–vestiges 149–55; Koppes 1995; Parry 1996, vii.

5 Costello 1985, set 211.

6 Gray 1959, uprooting 62–63; Costello 1985, come 248.

7 Hartsock 1983, 186–90; Hartsock 1989; Hirschfeld 1934, sensuality–normal 69–70, 31–51, 188–206; Theweleit 1987, 249.

8 Hirschfeld 1934, 73–77, hunger 81, wife 76, bestiality 86–87, civilian 89–91; Costello 1985, 75, 102; Freud 1915.

9 Fussell 1989, sexless 108.

10 Holmes 1985, average 97; Costello 1985, peak–survey 97, 262, half 99.

11 Costello 1985, epidemic 249–52, 95.

12 Fussell 1989, 105–10.

13 Keegan and Holmes 1985; Ambrose 1997, parties 106, nurses 190, booze 290, market 337–38; Paris: Costello 1985, 88.

14 Costello 1985, 3, 7–9.

15 Costello 1985, wolves 228–32, 240, riots 235; Australia: Lake and Damousi 1995, 9.

16 Costello 1985, sociability–streets 207; Enloe 1983, 29–31; Anderson 1981, perimeters 104, married 110.

17 Anderson 1981, 104–9.

18 Costello 1985, 249.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)