Penicillin and the French regulationist system
The advent of penicillin in the 1930s marked a significant breakthrough that revolutionized the therapeutic landscape for diverse bacterial infections, including those causing venereal diseases (Brandt, Jones 1999). The use of penicillin during World War Two led to a decline in the incidence of syphilis and allowed for more effective and quicker treatment, reducing the severity and duration of venereal illnesses (Parascandola 2001).
The accessibility of penicillin, however, did not bring about a substantial overhaul in France’s approach to managing venereal diseases after 1945. Instead, concerns regarding sexually transmitted diseases persisted, particularly among the armed forces; military documents attest that soldiers fighting on foreign soil were frequently subjected to delayed administration of antibiotics, a practice that proved ineffective in averting the development of urethral complications resulting from these infections. The fear of ‘venereal peril’ was further exacerbated by France’s simultaneous engagement in two significant imperial conflicts following World War Two—the First Vietnam War (1946-1954) and the Algerian War (1954-1962).
Keeping the “system” abroad
The swift deployment of French and colonial soldiers to theaters of war within the French Empire led to the strengthening of the French system of prostitution. Despite the abolition of the regulatory framework in metropolitan France in 1946, leading to the closure of all French-regulated brothels (maisons de tolérance), the extension of this legislation to the French colonies did not occur until 1960 (Taraud 2003). As a result, the regulatory system persisted in overseas territories like Algeria and Vietnam. This meant that both the maisons de tolérance and the supervised military brothels (BMC) continued their operations unhindered throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
During both wars, there was a concerted effort to safeguard soldiers’ (sexual) health and ensure the overall military readiness. The French military administration consistently emphasized the necessity of “maintaining troops who are both morally and physically fit.” Meeting soldiers’ sexual needs constituted a substantial aspect of that goal. To monitor the spread of venereal diseases, the military hierarchy argued for supplementing medical interventions with preventive measures, including the implementation of prophylactic measures, and the continued regulation of clandestine prostitution. Moreover, the establishment of medically-regulated military-supervised brothels was especially important in this endeavor.
Venereal disease was so morally loaded that soldiers were not merely encouraged to abstain from engaging in high-risk behaviors such as clandestine prostitution; rather, they faced punitive measures if they “consummated” outside the BMCs. During the First Vietnam War, for instance, instructions were saturated with reprimands for soldiers who contracted venereal diseases through negligence. Infected men who required scarce medical resources and were deemed unfit for service were subsequently subjected to rigorous sanctions.
Women and the “venereal peril”
French strategies to curb venereal diseases also revolved around the vigilant surveillance of both women employed in the BMCs and those selling sex outside the established system. Approaches such as tracking and arresting clandestine prostitutes constituted steadfast measures implemented by the French colonial military administration to mitigate the propagation of venereal diseases.
The army used various means of propaganda to oversee soldiers’ sexual activities and manage discourses around venereal diseases, with film holding a special allure for military authorities. Historian Ruth Ginio notes that starting from World War I, the army incorporated films into their propaganda efforts, a trend that escalated during the 1930s. After World War Two, recognizing the potency of cinema for propaganda, the French government established the Army’s Cinematographic Service, which produced propaganda films as part of their psychological operations in Indochina and Algeria (Ginio 2017).
One antivenereal propaganda film narrated by a Lieutenant Colonel warns of the dangers of gonorrhea through close-up visuals and a moralizing commentary. The film depicts the severe consequences of venereal diseases, such as vision loss and infertility, and stresses the importance of consulting specialists at venereal disease clinics while urging abstinence for a “fulfilling family life”. But specifically, a cautionary tale is woven into the narrative, highlighting women’s responsibility. The commander clarifies that “almost invariably, any woman who easily engages in intimate relations, irrespective of her social background, is likely to be both diseased and contagious.”
In another film addressed to the soldiers of the French Expeditionary Corps (the French military force in Indochina), military personnel are provided with guidance on proper behavior with local women, with the portrayal of these women emphasizing promiscuity. Women, in particular Asian women, were still characterized as potential “vectors” of venereal diseases. In colonial Vietnam, as historians have shown, prostitutes were perceived as the main, if not the sole, carriers of venereal diseases (Guénel 2001; Tracol-Huyhn 2013). Within the BMCs, the central aspect of managing venereal infections lay in the surveillance and medical oversight of women, subjecting them to invasive medical examinations.
Such measures exemplify the intersection of health policies and colonial attitudes within the context of decolonization. From the post-1945 period to the mid-1960s, the management of venereal diseases in the French Empire was not only a medical concern but also embedded in wider imperial and military practices as well as colonial presumptions of indigenous women’s sexuality.
Primary sources are from the military archives and the French Defense Audiovisual Agency (ECPAD)
Brandt, Allan M., and David Shumway Jones. “Historical Perspectives on Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Challenges for Prevention and Control.” In Sexually Transmitted Diseases, edited by King K. Holmes, Per-Anders Mardh, P. Frederick Sparling, Stanley M. Lemon, Walter E. Stamm, Peter Piot, and Judith N. Wasserheit, 3rd ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Ginio, Ruth. The French Army and Its African Soldiers: The Years of Decolonization. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Guénel, Annick. “Prostitution, Maladies Vénériennes et Médecine Coloniale.” In John Kleinen (ed.), Vietnamese Society in Transition : The Daily Politics of Reform and Change. Amsterdam, 2001.
Parascandola, John. “John Mahoney and the Introduction of Penicillin to Treat Syphilis.” Pharmacy in History 43, no. 1 (2001): 3–13.
Taraud, Christelle. La Prostitution Coloniale: Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc (1830-1962). Paris: A. Michel, 2003.
Tracol-Huynh, Isabelle. “Entre Ordre Colonial et Santé Publique, la Prostitution au Tonkin de 1885 à 1954.” PhD diss., Université Lumière Lyon 2, 2013.
Cover image: “Gonorrhea, social danger”. From ECPAD, SS28.