Reflecting on the French system of military prostitution known as Bordels Militaires de Campagne (BMC, Mobile Field Brothels) during the First World War, Dr. Léon Bizard wrote in his memoirs (1925):
It was a mêlée, a hard, dangerous, and disgusting business. Fifty, sixty, up to a hundred men of all colors and races to relieve every day, all under the constant threat of air raids and bombardments.
While other nations were more discreet in their support of prostitution, allowing their soldiers stationed overseas to visit brothels without the explicit consent of their officers, the French government approved of a military-sponsored system that would procure prostitutes for its troops throughout most of the twentieth century. The regulation and control of prostitution have long been a feature of anti-venereal disease policies (Levine, 2003). However, in the case of military brothels, the equation of soldiers’ (hetero) sexual gratification with military morale and high fighting spirits steered the logic behind the construction of Bordel Militaire de Campagne. Denying soldiers a ‘safe’ outlet for satisfying male sexual drives, it was argued, not only put soldiers at risk for contracting syphilis with ‘unmonitored’ prostitutes but would also lead men into homosexuality or to commit sexual crimes.
The BMC and Military Exceptionalism
The French system of licensed military brothels first came about in 1918 to combat the staggering rates of syphilis during World War One, providing the Allied soldiers with a ‘safe’ and authorized access to prostitutes while at the front and on leave. After the Second World War, laws about prostitution took a turn in France. In April 1946, the Marthe Richard Law abolished the “French system” of prostitution by requiring the closure of all brothels, thus putting an end to the police des moeurs’ special register, the confinement of prostitutes, and the enforced medical visits (art. 1, 7, 9, 10). The act of prostitution stayed legal, and prophylaxis measures remained, but solicitation was prohibited.
Over the next decade, debates surfaced among politicians as to whether Marthe Richard law applied to the colonies. Regardless, the French Ministry of War saw no way to outlaw prostitution for soldiers, seen as a ‘necessary evil’ important for soldiers’ morale. Despite French support of the 1933 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and the National Assembly’s passage of the Marthe Richard Law, the French Army was to enjoy exemption from enforcing these legal statutes, enabling the highest echelon of the French government to sanction a program of mobile prostitution to “service” combat and support soldiers overseas. Of course, French government officials had to navigate these waters carefully; they stressed that Marthe Richard law was desirable, but the moment did not seem favorable “to apply a law [to the Army overseas] whose outcomes, even in France, are very controversial.”
Impetuses for operating BMCs overseas
Scholars who wrote about military prostitution, such as Michel Hardy and Christian Benoît, have argued that monitoring venereal diseases was the underlying ‘motor’ for maintaining military brothels after 1946. However, eliminating venereal infections was only one justification for operating BMCs. The question of military exceptionalism was most rooted in the belief in the impossibility of soldiers remaining abstinent during the war. After 1946, the Army’s campaign for licensed prostitution vehemently stressed that soldiers’ sexual desires had to be satisfied at all times to secure field efficacy on the ground and avoid political and military ramifications.
Closing the BMCs, military generals stressed, would have “tremendous repercussions on the moral, medical, and operational levels. It risks a resurgence of acts against nature, more or less successful attempts at seduction, clandestine prostitution, psychological issues, and violence.” Fears of unmonitored clandestine prostitution centered on venereal diseases and the rise of syphilis but not on health considerations alone. Anxiety around the intertwining of espionage and unregulated prostitution also punctuates discussions on the need to open BMCs. During the First Indochina War (1946-54), General Gambiez warned that without BMCs, the Viet Minh would soon “take advantage of clandestine prostitution – the only one left accessible to soldiers- to recruit female intelligence agents.”
The organization of the BMC also provides considerable evidence about the Army’s active stance on the politics of gender and sexuality. Military authorities became concerned that denying soldiers sexual access to women in a homosocial context would encourage the practice of homosexual sex. Reports of homosexual activity between the troops, described as “special camaraderie,” also fuelled these concerns. Military socialization processes bred a sense of hypermasculinity wherein military brothels became essential in constructing militarized masculinity and heterosexual male sociability within the armed forces. In such a context, mobilizing women’s sexual labor was crucial to keep homosexuality at bay.
Paradoxically, the mobilization of women’s sexual work was also thought to reduce instances of rape, a belief strongly harbored at the time by both military and colonial officials. While on the ground covering the First Indochina War, the political scientist, and war correspondent Bernard Fall characterized the Bordel Militaire de Campagne (BMC) as a “hallowed institution” because of its “advantage of providing soldiers with a controlled sexual release, thus cutting down on desertions, on rapes of hapless girls of surrounding civilian population and also on venereal disease” (Fall, 1961).
The decolonization wars: the apogee of the Mobile Field Brothel system
Initially known as Bataillon Médical de Campagne (Medical Field Battalion) during World War One, the acronym BMC gradually morphed into Bordel Mobile de Campagne (Mobile Field Brothel) in military writings. Far from being a marginal and parenthetical aspect of French military policy, the institution of the BMC was more a ‘medical field battalion’ tasked with combating venereal infections. Over the course of the twentieth century, the institution served as a tool to control and manage soldiers’ sexuality and became crucial to the maintenance of military socialization and militarized masculinity. Fears of miscegenation, homosexuality, “venereal peril,” and sexual crimes tainting the French Army’s reputation were deemed sufficient reasons to justify military exceptionalism in the face of UN conventions and Marthe Richard Law.
During the First Indochina War (1946-54) and the Algerian War (1954-62), the BMC system reached its apex, sustained by the sexual labor of thousands of (mostly) Arab, Berber, and Vietnamese women and girls who worked in hundreds of racially-segregated military brothels. With its systematized, bureaucratic, and racialized features, the French institution of military prostitution evolved into a state-sponsored globalized, commercial sex trade functioning as a military operation that has yet to be examined closely.
Archival sources come from the SHD and ANOM archives.
Bizard, Léon. Souvenir d’un Médecin de la Préfecture de Police et Des Prisons de Paris (1914-1918). Paris: B. Grasset, 1925.
Fall, Bernard. Street Without Joy, the First Debacle in Indochina. Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 1961.
Benoit, Christian. Le Soldat Et La Putain: Histoire d’Un Couple Inséparable. Villiers-sur-mer: P. de Taillac, 2013.
Corbin, Alain. Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France After 1850. Alan Sheridan trans. Harvard University Press, 1990.
Hardy, Michel. De La Morale Au Moral Des Troupes Ou l’Histoire Des BMC, 1918-2004. Panazol: Lavauzelle, 2004.
Le Naour, Jean-Yves. Misères Et Tourments De La Chair Durant La Grande Guerre: Les Moeurs Sexuelles Des Français, 1914-1918. Paris: Aubier, 2002.
Levine, Philippa. Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Makepeace, Clare. “Male Heterosexuality and Prostitution During the Great War: British Soldiers’ Encounters With Maisons Tolérées,” in Cultural and Social History 9, no. 1 (2012): 65-83.
Rhoades, Michelle. “Renegotiating French Masculinity: Medicine and Venereal Disease during the Great War,” French Historical Studies 29, no. 2 (Spring 2006).
Cover image: A rare photograph depicting a mobile field brothel (BMC) in Morocco. Two young women pose with soldiers outside the tents used for sexual encounters. Source: Legraverand, 1922. “At Camp d’Arbalou l’Arbi. The B.M.C.”