Changing Views About Syphilis and Sex Education Around World War I

Hannah Storch is currently a senior at Grinnell College, double majoring in history and classics. After graduating in Spring 2016, she will be attending Georgetown University for a Masters in Art and Museum Studies. She has long been interested in the stigma surrounding venereal diseases prior to the 20th century and what caused the shift that allowed them to be more openly talked about in sex education classes and society as a whole.

Prior to the 20th century, people understood very little about syphilis or the spread of venereal diseases in general, and they did not want to know more. Syphilis was referred to as the “secret disease”, and social decorum either denied or downplayed the seriousness of the problem. Meanwhile, existing attitudes about the disease was heavily influenced by ideologically determined assumptions about class and gender [1]. The Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century created an environment that was much more receptive to open discussions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, it was after World War I that there was a marked increase in venereal disease prevention programs and sex education programs which resulted in more open discussion in society about syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The Progressive Era marked a clear change in how people in America viewed sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. By the late 19th century, Americans began to see youth as its own stage of life and began to conceive of the idea of a sexually-charged period of adolescence. As Moran states in his book, the idea of adolescence arose from three things: first, the ongoing segregation and sorting of children by age, which further separated them from the adult world; second, the fact that the average age of puberty had decreased so that people were becoming sexually mature earlier in life; and third, that the period of training and education for young men had grown longer, which delayed the average of marriage [2]. Many parents felt that they had good reason to fear the effects of their children’s sexual awakening during this period of adolescence. Disease, exploitation, and unwanted pregnancies were common dangers and the reformers of the time just made people more aware of these health threats. Because of this, many parents, especially among the educated middle class, were increasingly receptive to the idea that their adolescent children needed help regulating their desires and increasingly relied on educational systems and governmental programs to provide this support [3]. Other reformers saw government intervention as a means of significantly improving the lives of the ordinary working class. They believed that Americans’ sexual morality was declining and that state and federal intervention was the only way to stop this decline and eliminate the sexual immorality and diseases [4].

The movement for sex education in public schools began in the second decade of the twentieth century when public criticism of social and moral problems was paired with an optimism about education’s ability to cure these failings. In 1916, Maurice Bigelow, the director of the School of Practical Arts at Columbia University Teacher’s College, wrote that many people had recently “turned to education in their search for progress toward the solution of the great sexual problems” and that “education has become the modern panacea for many of our ills-hygienic, industrial, political, and social” [5]. However, with the increasing spread of sexual knowledge and education, there was also a widespread fear that sexual knowledge would somehow transform itself into sexual practice. Due to this concern, early-twentieth-century sex educators tried to codify and control the production and dissemination of knowledge, emphasizing the connection between individual conduct and the condition of the American family as it represented the nation. Sex education pamphlets were very explicit in their reminders that every citizen has a responsibility to protect the nation by protecting their home and family from the threat of venereal disease [6].

In sex guides and manuals such as Sex and Life: A Message to Undergraduate Men, young men were taught that sex was a natural act but one that should be practiced carefully. In this particular treatise, it was written that, “sooner or later both women and men who practice promiscuous sex intercourse are almost certain to become infected by either syphilis or gonorrhea” [7]. Although people were beginning to believe that more information and knowledge about sex and sexually transmitted diseases was a good thing, there was still a moralistic component to many of the early writings about these practices.

The outbreak of World War I provided new uses for sex education campaigns as concerns about venereal disease amongst the soldiers and on the home-front escalated. Early reports from the Allied armies showed that in some regiments, one man out of every four was suffering from the effects of syphilis or gonorrhea [8]. In 1917, the Council of National Defense established a Committee for Civilian Cooperation in Combating Venereal Diseases (CCCCVD) to assist in controlling venereal disease in civilian populations and a Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) was established to protect American soldiers on the home-front from venereal disease [9]. The United States government believed that by emphasizing abstinence, good sex education would provide soldiers and sailors with the necessary tools to control their sexual desires [10]. For its anti-venereal disease campaign, the CTCA limited the access of soldiers to prostitutes and liquor as well as established a social hygiene program, which was responsible for the sexual education of both soldiers and civilians. This campaign used posters, pamphlets, exhibitions, and lectures in order to promote sexual self-restraint [11]. These campaigns highlighted three main points: first, that no one was immune to venereal disease; second, that manly men could control their sexual desires; and third that if soldiers recognized the consequences of their mistake, they could take immediate action and remedy the situation with treatment for venereal disease [12]. As opposed to earlier sex education campaigns, these military campaigns preferred to stress reality and science over moralism (Figure 1). Due to the government’s aggressive attacks on venereal diseases during the war and the fact that the state-of-crisis during the war broke down inhibitions about discussing the diseases and their effects, there was less of a stigma around syphilis and other venereal diseases during the post-war period [13].

One of the most significant results of World War I for the progress of sex education was that venereal disease control became a specific duty of a federal health agency, the United States Public Health Service (PHS). The Public Health Service called for teacher training, educational activities about the dangers of prostitution, sex education courses for working and non-working adolescents, the distribution of sex education pamphlets, and even widespread showing of the Public Health Service’s first sex education films, including Fit to Win, Open Your Eyes, and The End of the Road [14]. The Public Health Service also actively encouraged state and local governments to use federal funds to reprint pamphlets and placards in order to ensure the cooperation of communities within the national campaigns.

Although the importance of education about social hygiene for boys and girls had been evident for some time, the war revealed the immediate urgency of such policies and practices. People now strongly believed that instruction in social hygiene was essential, both for preventing destructive venereal diseases and insuring the best use of their creative impulses so that boys and girls could be wisely directed to an understanding and control of their sexual energies. High Schools and Sex Education: A Manual of Suggestions on Education Related to Sex defined sex education as “a comprehensive and progressive process of care, guidance, and example extending over a long period of years, from infancy to maturity” [15]. The manual goes on to say that “because of the far-reaching effects of the eventual attitude and practices of the individual, sex education carries with it obligations of the widest social importance. As a phase of character formation, sex education must include all the instruction and training that may help to form normal and wholesome attitudes and ideals in relation to sex, and to shape conduct in accord with such attitudes and ideals” [16]. The general curriculum of sex education courses such as the one described in this manual included a biology course, a general science course, a physiology course, a physical education course, a home economics course, a social studies course, and an English course. All of these courses, then, related back to sexual and domestic practices.

Despite the fact that there was an increase number of sex education programs, social hygiene in the World War I era had created an issue for sex educators because the wartime crusade against venereal disease had brought unprecedented funding and acceptance to sex education. However, this new support was inextricably linked to sex education’s role in fighting diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea. Therefore, sex educators had focused much of their curriculum towards venereal disease prevention. One of the most popular methods of sex education on venereal disease prevention was the fear method which involved scaring students with horror stories about the effects that syphilis could have on their bodies, sex lives, and families. However, a study conducted shortly after the war determined that the “fear” method of instruction actually had little impact on a test group of men reading social hygiene pamphlets [17].

Although the idea of adolescence had emerged before World War I, the 1920s saw the creation of a more indulgent youth culture, which had a greater acceptance of sexual experimentation and personal fulfillment. This same youth culture wanted sex educators to set aside the curriculum that was focused on venereal diseases so that they could contend with broader ethical and social issues. In order to meet these demands, sex education programs ultimately decided to focus on a broader definition of sex education that would encompass all scientific, ethical, social, and religious instruction and influence which in any way might help young people prepare to meet the problems of life in relation to sex [18]. Not only were venereal diseases talked about more openly after World War I, but they also served as a conduit for frank and open discussion about sex and sexually transmitted diseases in sex education programs.

Figure 1:

WWI poster depicting the shackles of venereal disease and how they could affect a soldier's life.
Figure 1: WWI poster depicting the shackles of venereal disease and how they could affect a soldier’s life. Photo Credit:


[1] Linda Merlins ed. The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 149.

[2] Jeffrey Moran, Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 15.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Alexandra Lord, Condom Nation (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 14.

[5] Julia B. Carter “Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease: Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education” in The Journal of History of Sexuality Vol. 10 No. 2. (2001), 214, accessed May 19, 2016 <>

[6] Ibid, 216.

[7] Thomas Galloway, Sex and Life: A Message to Undergraduate Men (New York City: Association Press, 1919), 50.

[8] Thomas Parran, Shadow on the Land: Syphilis (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937), 31.

[9] John Parascandola, Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2008), 51-2.

[10] Alexandra Lord, Condom Nation (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 28.

[11] Ibid, 61.

[12] Ibid, 29.

[13] Harvey Locke “Changing Attitudes Toward Venereal Disease” in American Sociological Review Vol. 4 No. 6 (1939), 837, accessed May 19, 2016 <>

[14] Lord, Condom Nation, 33

[15] United States Public Health Service, High Schools and Sex Education: A Manual of Suggestions on Education Related to Sex (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1922), v.

[16] Ibid, 2.

[17] Paul Strong Achilles, The Effectiveness of Certain Social Hygiene Literature (New York: American Social Hygiene Association, 1923), 93.

[18] Moran, Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, 101.

Further Readings:

Burnham, John “The Progressive Era Revolution in American Attitudes Toward Sex” in The Journal of American History Vol. 59 No. 4 (1973): 885-908. doi:10.2307/1918367.

Eng, Thomas R. and William T. Butler eds. The Hidden Epidemic: Confronting Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Washington D,C: National Academy Press, 1997.

Freeman, Susan Kathleen. Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education Before the 1960s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Lord, Alexandra. “The Science of Keeping Fit: Fighting Venereal Disease in World War I.” Accessed May 19, 2016 <>