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Prostitution and the U.S. military


Recent news that nine military personnel and 11 Secret Service agents allegedly solicited prostitutes in Columbia has sparked a congressional inquiry, institutional investigations and much speculation about how such an act might threaten presidential security. Were these men just a few bad apples? Maybe. But the American military has a long history of sanctioning prostitution, one that suggests much deeper concerns about its cultivation of a sexualized culture that can help to explain such an astonishingly brash act.

Although the Civil War's Gen. Joseph Hooker is probably the most well-known military commander to officially sanction prostitution, he is certainly not alone. American military history is littered with officials who drew connections between a soldier's sexual habits and his battlefield performance. As Gen. George Patton put it most famously (and perhaps most crassly), "if they don't [blank], they don't fight." Other, less explicit, officials feared that soldiers would in fact have sex and that they would acquire venereal disease in the process. The military reconciled these two seemingly contradictory beliefs by providing prostitutes for men in the hope that a regulated system would be safer than the alternative. It was, Gen. John Pershing believed, "the best way to handle a difficult problem."

To be sure, the military has also explicitly forbidden personnel to engage prostitutes, and it has punished those who ignored the order. And yet, such prohibitions existed alongside the military's sanctioning of that very act. The Army operated brothels for soldiers on the Mexican border in 1916, military authorities regulated more than a dozen houses of prostitution for troops stationed in World War II Honolulu, and military medical officers monitored the health of prostitutes in the "better" brothels set aside for U.S. soldiers in Italy, Morocco, Algeria, and Liberia in 1943.

These instances of officially sanctioned prostitution are less common than other, indirect methods of facilitating personnel's access to prostitutes. GIs in World War II each received six condoms per month courtesy of the U.S. military. Soldiers in Vietnam had to purchase condoms in the PX, but those at Long Binh Post in 1972 could bring local women on base during "Social Sundays," at least until the skyrocketing VD rate resulted in the program's quick end.

Outside these instances of sanctioned prostitution and a general "wink, wink" condoning of men who seek out prostitutes on their own, the military has historically positioned women as sexual objects for men to gaze at, long for and chase after. Think USO dancers in short skirts before thousands of soldiers in the South Pacific, or Raquel Welch gyrating in go-go boots in Vietnam, or even the dozens of scantily clad NFL cheerleaders who tour Afghanistan each year to raise (heterosexual male) soldiers' morale.

If Congress or the military wants to get to the bottom of the prostitution scandal in Columbia, or if it would like to seriously address the alarmingly high rates of military sexual assault that continue to plague American women in uniform, it needs to begin with the military's own history of facilitating soldiers' sexual access to women.

Kara Dixon Vuic is a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the author of "Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War." Contact her at kv9c@virginia.edu.

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