The rise of “le péril vénérien” and the French regulationist system
Venereal diseases were a significant social and medical problem through the mid-20th century. While syphilis had a long history, with its emergence in Europe around 1495 (Tognotti 2009), apprehensions surrounding venereal diseases didn’t surface until much later. Initially, these concerns were primarily directed at the sexual health of military personnel. In 1793, Deputy and General de Carnot articulated the danger of sexually transmitted diseases for the armed forces and placed blame on prostitutes who enticed soldiers.
However, it was during the Belle Époque that the concept of “venereal peril” emerged; syphilis began to manifest itself as both a significant public health concern but also triggered a substantial “social menace” and a psychosis in French society (Corbin 1976). Venereal diseases became connected with questions of morality, race degeneration and women were often assumed to be the sole source of contagion. In 1842, French physician Philippe Ricord, known for his delineation of the distinctions between syphilis and gonorrhea, wrote:
if, in general, women were more cleanly and careful of themselves, the venereal disease would be far less common. How many women have received the contagious matter, and transmitted it, without becoming infected themselves!
In addressing the imperative of controlling and reducing the spread of venereal infections, the French implemented a regulatory system known as regulationism. This framework, characterized by its meticulous oversight and management of behaviors contributing to the spread of diseases, relied on moral discipline and legislative measures; in particular, and one could say, paradoxically, the endorsement of ‘sanitized’ prostitution emerged as a central strategy to curb the prevalence of venereal diseases.
Under regulationism, closed brothels commonly referred to as maisons de tolérance, were set up. These establishments housed filles soumises (registered prostitutes) whose activities were closely monitored. The police des moeurs was tasked with arresting, registering at the police headquarters, and incarcerating any unregistered clandestine prostitutes (Corbin 1976).
The French system of prostitution
The establishment of the Société française de prophylaxie sanitaire et morale (SFPSM) in 1901 played a pivotal role in advocating for the regulation of prostitution and shaping the discourse on sexuality and morality, disseminated by bourgeois propagandists, physicians, and military authorities alike. Advocates of regulationism did not see the ban of prostitution as viable; prostitution was understood as a “necessary evil,” especially for the armed forces, serving as an outlet to relieve pent-up sexual tensions while upholding order. Prostitutes were stigmatized yet they were considered indispensable to the negotiation of masculinity.
The famous 19th-century hygienist and staunch apologist for regulation, Dr. Jean Baptiste Parent du Châtelet (1790-1835), regarded social hygiene as a comprehensive solution to the health and moral corruption posed by prostitution within the bourgeois population. Author of a massive two-volume study of prostitution in the city of Paris, which appeared posthumously in 1836, Du Châtelet characterized prostitutes as an essential “égout seminal” (“sewer of semen”), which required their confinement within regulated brothels in order to shield society from syphilis and moral depravity.
Progressively, the French system of prostitution, as it became known, was adopted by other European countries, where the prioritization of public health, morality, and law enforcement increasingly became a paramount concern. A notable example is the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 in England, which applied regulationism throughout the country and governed prostitution in proximity to military locales. Under this act, prostitutes could be apprehended, subjected to medical examinations for venereal diseases, and forcibly detained for treatment for a period of up to one year (Walkowitz 1982; Levine 2003). No sanctions were held against their male clients.
World War One and the support of prophylaxis
In 1916, amid the backdrop of the First World War, the specter of syphilis tightened its stranglehold on public consciousness. Beyond its association with inhibited childbirth, syphilis was found to pose a risk of mental, neurological disorders, and diverse disabilities for offspring born to infected parents. This discovery fueled the theory of the disease’s heredity, as postulated by Professor Alfred Fournier in 1902. Concurrently, a rapid escalation in soldier fatalities, not to mention those who were incapacitated for weeks, amplified discourses around the “venereal disease terror.” In total, between 1916 and 1919, over 250,000 French combatants received medical care for venereal diseases, with a morbidity rate estimated at 8% (Le Naour 2002).
While the First World War contributed to the perpetuation of regulationism, a paradigm shift occurred in 1917, coinciding with the arrival of American forces on French soil. Instead of adopting regulationism, the American Army endorsed a moralistic approach with the aim of curtailing prostitution among military personnel. These measures included promoting abstinence, through the educational methods employed by the YMCA, and the strict use of individual prophylactic practices; following any sexual relation and within a limited three-hour timeframe, soldiers were mandated to present themselves at the nearby prophylactic station, where they would engage in personal intimate hygiene facilitated by various ointments and a self-administered protargol solution within the urethral tract. Failure to demonstrate compliance with this protocol in the event of illness resulted in the soldier facing legal repercussions in the form of a court-martial (Le Naour 2002).
Recognizing the impracticality of expecting soldiers to practice abstinence, French military authorities persisted in recommending enclosure to combat high rates of venereal diseases among their soldiers, opting instead for the creation of prophylactic brothels, the Bordel Militaire de Campagne (BMC) in 1918. These supposedly “clean” establishments were expected to safeguard soldiers from the risks associated with clandestine prostitution. Subject to rigorous oversight and American-like prophylactic measures, BMCs operated with prostitutes who underwent regular medical assessments under the careful watch of military doctors.
After the Great War: the age of military brothels
France was not the sole practitioner of functionalizing military brothels as “sanitary” institutions in Europe. During the Second World War, the German military brothels, known as soldatenbordell established by the Third Reich across much of occupied Europe for the use of the Wehrmacht and the SS, also served such a function. The Nazi regime endorsed prostitution under the pretext that soldatenbordell helped eliminate street prostitution and fulfilled hygienic roles by reducing the potential for venereal disease transmission associated with unregulated sex work, thus safeguarding the population (Timm 2002). In the case of the soldatenbordell, however, European women, at least 34,000 of them, were compelled into prostitution. In many instances, these women were abducted from the streets of occupied cities, often as part of sweeping operations, such as in Poland (Meinen 2006).
How the post-1945 era represented a pivotal shift in the regulation of prostitution and the perception of the ‘Venereal Peril’ in both France and its empire is a question we will delve into in the second part of this article.
Correspondance générale de Carnot (novembre 1793-mars 1795). Paris, Impr. nationale, 1907. BNF Gallica.
Parent du Châtelet, Jean-Baptiste. De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris considérée sous le rapport de l’hygiène publique , de la morale et de l’administration, 1836. BNF Gallica.
Ricord, Philippe. A practical treatise on venereal diseases, or, Critical and experimental researches on inoculation: applied to the study of these affections: with a therapeutical summary and special formulary. New York: P. Gordon, 1842.
Corbin, Alain. Les Filles de Noce, Misère Sexuelle et Prostitution (XIX – XX siècles). Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1978.
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. London: Routledge, 2003.
Meinen, Insa. Wehrmacht et Prostitution Sous l’Occupation. Translated by Beate Husser. Paris: Payot, 2006.
Timm, Annette F. “Sex with a Purpose: Prostitution, Venereal Disease, and Militarized Masculinity in the Third Reich.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1/2 (2002): 223–55.
Tognotti, Eugenia. “The Rise and Fall of Syphilis in Renaissance Europe.” Journal of Medical Humanities 30, 99–113 (2009).
Walkowitz, Judith R. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Cover image: Alfred Azoulay, Le Péril Vénérien, Prophylaxie Individuelle et Générale Des Maladies Vénériennes, Traitement de La Syphilis (Paris : Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, 1920), BNF Gallica.