In 1946 Lawson Glassop appeared before a New South Wales court to appeal an obscenity ruling on his novel We Were the Rats. Glassop’s book about Australian soldiers in Tobruk was candid and gritty by the standards of the time. His servicemen were eager patrons of brothels between Sydney and Palestine and, where these delights weren’t to be had, resorted to a collection of pornography known as ‘Wilsons Perv Gallery’. The judge presiding over Glassop’s obscenity case didn’t doubt the novel’s realism. Nor did he censure the servicemen’s behaviour. However, ‘it seems to me’, he said, ‘that not everything a man says or does can be the subject of publication to the general public’. The obscenity ruling was upheld.
The Rats trial exemplifies a classic conundrum for military officialdom: how to let ‘boys be boys’, but also manage how the sometimes unpalatable reality that comes with that is conveyed. Ryan Mungia’s Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II (produced by BOYO press) gives a fascinating insight into one of the ways the United States ‘managed’ servicemen’s sexuality: through poster art. The posters were for use in military spaces for a military audience and designed to tackle the very real threat posed to the war effort by venereal disease.
Protect Yourself quotes the staggering figure of 18,000 American military personnel incapacitated by sexually transmitted diseases each day during World War I. By World War II, that figure had dropped to a still-considerable 600 per day. Penicillin was largely the catalyst for the reduction, but the awareness of venereal disease raised by the posters played a part too. They ‘represent perhaps the last period when the poster could elicit a response from a mass audience on a widespread basis’.
In his introductory essay to Protect Yourself, Jim Heimann describes the message of the posters: ‘Abstain from illicit sexual contact because it is unpatriotic, lethal, or detrimental to one’s health, and shameful to one’s spouse, girlfriend, or family back home’. Yet the posters are also pragmatic, recommending the use of condoms where the spirit can’t master the flesh. Or, as several posters put it, ‘Fool the Axis, Use Prophylaxis’.
Produced largely by anonymous artists, the posters are intriguing and unsettling. There’s no missing the sexual double standard: women invariably represent the disease and the diseased. ‘She may look clean,’ advises one poster from which a wide-eyed ingénue stares out, ‘but – pick-ups, good-time girls and prostitutes spread syphilis and gonorrhoea’. In one poster a skeleton clad in a tight red dress walks arm-in-arm with Hitler and Mussolini and is characterised as ‘the worst of the three’. The ‘bag of trouble’ girl featured on the cover is Rosie-the-Riveter’s worldly cousin: she’s taken on not just a man’s job and responsibilities but his sexual prerogative too. Some of the posters have genuine pathos. In one, a bare-chested, strapping soldier looks longingly toward home while tied to the mast of a ship called ‘VD’.
Just as Nicole Moore stumbled across the censor’s library here in Australia, the posters were a chance discovery by editor Ryan Mungia who was conducting research in Washington D.C for another project. ‘On the last day of my trip,’ says Mungia, ‘in the last hour or two before the facility closed, I discovered a cache of old VD posters tucked away inside a filing cabinet. Though I had recognized a few of them from too many hours spent scouring the Internet, I suspected that the bulk of the collection had never been seen outside of the precious few researchers and librarians who happened upon the posters as I had.’
Mungia’s larger project is called Shore Leave: a study of soldiers’ experiences in Hawaii where they were stationed prior to being shipped out to the war. Many of these men, he says, ‘had never travelled outside of the small towns where they grew up, and all of a sudden they find themselves in the tropical paradise that is Hawaii, away from family and friends for perhaps the very first time, with only a few days of “liberty” before being transported overseas to a war from which they may never return. Shore Leave documents these young conscripts’ experience in an exotic port teeming with tattoo parlours, booze, chop suey houses, and brothels’. Protect Yourself is an enticing teaser for this more substantial forthcoming work.
Protect Yourself is available now through BOYO Press.