A History of Single Life

Pin it


  Send to a Friend
  Printer Friendly Format
  Leave Feedback
  Read Feedback
  Nerve RSS

This is the first article in a series on lesser-known sexual events, from antiquity to the present.

When Grandpa told you how he defeated Hitler and made the world safe for democracy, he probably didn’t include the part about the wall jobs.

     The Royal Air Force might have ruled the skies, but the blacked-out streets of 1940s London belonged to the "Piccadilly Commandos," British girls dolled up in nylons and garters and looking for a good time. For a nominal fee or just for fun, they would take you by the hand to a doorway or alley for a brief encounter taken standing up against the nearest masonry — the infamous "wall job." "We weren’t really being immoral, there was a war going on," protested one British lass.

     Looking at it more than sixty years after the fact, the results of taking the healthy male youth of America, putting them together in the locker-room environment of the Army, giving them good food, ample pocket money, fresh air and exercise after years of the Great Depression, and then sending them out into the world to kill or be killed are as unsurprising as they were unavoidable. The action in the Iliad


begins with Achilles and Agamemnon quarrelling over the serving-girl Briseis, and, though the warriors of the Second World War did battle with aircraft and tanks of steel rather than swords and spears of bronze, their main obsession remained the same. What they don’t tell you on The History Channel is that for all of its bloodshed, horror, bureaucracy, and grief, World War II was the biggest sexual spree in history.

     England wasn’t the only place where the boys in uniform were getting it on, of course. Thousands of servicemen found their way to the brothels of Honolulu’s Hotel Street, where they lined up in block-long queues to visit some 250 registered prostitutes, each of whom made Annabel Chong look like an amateur by servicing some 100 men a day at a rate of three dollars for three minutes. When the Honolulu madams tried to cash in on wartime profiteering by raising the fee to five dollars, Major Frank Steer, the commander of the island’s military police, followed the example set by the Roosevelt Administration’s wartime price caps by proclaiming "The price of meat is still three dollars." Even without the benefit of laissez-faire capitalism, the brothels on Oahu were rumored to have raked in ten million dollars a year. Likewise, George S. Patton, famous for his dictum "A man who won’t fuck, won’t fight," established official brothels wherever he went — six in Palermo alone. The Cairo brothels in particular were renowned for their raunch, and in South Asia, American servicemen were appreciative of the thriving bordello industry that was the legacy of the British Empire.

     Though the battlefront, where men and machines clashed in the horror of industrial warfare, was a decidedly unsexy location, there were plenty of opportunities for getting some in the rear. "Voulez-vous couchez avec

In 1939, only one in twenty high-school boys knew what "masturbation" was.

moi?" was a French phrase all GIs knew, and one survey estimated that the average US soldier who fought his way across from D-Day to the fall of Berlin had slept with twenty-five women. Italian women, in particular, were known for being very aggressive; about seventy-five percent of the American soldiers in Italy had sex with the signorinas, often paying for the privilege with cash or goods sorely needed by the starving civilians. As a GI handbook of 1943 said, "The type of woman who approaches you on the street in Italy and says ‘Please give me a cigarette’ isn’t looking for a smoke."

     What makes this all the more remarkable was America’s sexual naiveté at the beginning of the war. A survey of high-school boys conducted in 1939 and 1940 by Glenn Ramsey, who would later be a colleague of Alfred Kinsey, showed that only one in twenty knew what "masturbation" was, one in ten knew the definition of the

word "virgin" and three out of four didn’t know that women menstruate. The closest thing to sex ed were crudely illustrated "Tijuana Bibles," which answered such burning questions as "I wonder what it actually looks like when Popeye and Olive Oyl fuck."

     In contrast, military life was like a high school locker room, multiplied by a factor of a million — and if anyone still had any doubts, Uncle Sam was eager to give them a remedial education. "The ‘easy’ girl-friend spreads Syphillis and Gonorrhoea, which unless properly treated may result in blindness, insanity, paralysis, premature death," read one famous poster featuring a flirtatious skull in a flowered hat. Training films sought to dissuade soldiers and sailors from partaking in the pleasures of the flesh by showing endless parades of pustulent penises, together with the consequences of not getting such maladies attended to immediately. Even Disney got into the act, producing an animated short (A Few Quick Facts #7 — Venereal Disease) to keep American servicemen on the straight-and-narrow.

Rosie the Riveter might have taken some time to nail the lucky 4F guys who were left behind.

     Naturally, abstinence-based education didn’t work any better then than it does now, and the War Department, ever pragmatic, wasn’t eager to repeat the mistakes of World War I, when official prudery and refusal to provide condoms resulted in more soldiers contracting syphilis — at that time, incurable and deadly — than getting wounded in battle. Not only did the Army provide thick, government-issued rubbers to the troops, it made the "pro-station" (short for "prophylaxis station") as ubiquitous a feature of military life as creamed chipped beef on toast. No matter where the station was located, the mandatory procedure was the same: The private’s privates were examined by a medical corpsman, and an antiseptic chemical solution was injected into his urethra. He was instructed to hold the concoction in his bladder and then urinate. An antibiotic salve was applied, and everything was wrapped up like a Christmas present. (As horrified as I was to learn about the urethra-cleansing, at least it explained why my grandfather always says to me, "Be good, but if you can’t be good, be careful.")

     So what was Grandma doing while Grandpa was off with the Italian girls? Probably the same thing: Only about half of the servicemen with wives and girlfriends polled in the 1945 study thought that their partners had been true to them. On her lunch breaks from assembling bombers, Rosie the Riveter might have taken some time to nail the lucky 4F guys who were left behind. Ellsworth "Sonny" Wisecarver, a.k.a. "The Woo Woo Kid" (played by Patrick Dempsey in the 1987 movie In the Mood), personified American anxiety about infidelity on the homefront: Sonny was only fourteen in 1944 when he took up with an older woman who already had two children by her common-law husband — and then, after their marriage was annulled and he was sternly warned by a judge, ran away with another older woman, the wife of a Marine.

     Wisecarver’s inadvertent celebrity, which ended when he finally married a girl his own age, also highlighted another American wartime obsession — underage sex. "School-age children without supervision are playing hooky from school and spending their time on the streets, in theaters, and other places of amusement," solemnly

Another American wartime obsession was underage sex.

intoned the narrator of As the Twig Is Bent, a 1943 warning film produced by the Aetna insurance corporation of Hartford, Connecticut, as two clean-cut teenagers, no doubt on the road to ruin, drank forbidden beer and danced awkwardly to a jukebox. "Teenage boys and girls are leaving high schools and colleges for well-paying jobs. Pockets filled with money, these young people are seeking dangerous thrills and excitement in semi-darkened taverns, where jukeboxes and dance floors often lead to trouble. Young, romantically-inclined girls, confused by the hero-worshipping spirit of wartime, are finding it hard to resist the glamour of military uniforms."

     Eventually, of course, the boys came home, the girls went back into the kitchen, the kids went back to school, and everybody tried to pretend that everything was the same as it always had been. Yet, even after Grandpa and Grandma settled down in their new suburban bungalow, bought a Studebaker, and popped out a few Baby Boomers, they never could put the past behind them — as was demonstrated by the nation’s newfound tastes for Playboy and the Kinsey Reports, by the women who wanted to reclaim the economic freedom they had found working on the assembly line, and by the first inklings of the sexual revolution. World War II had changed everything — and sixty years later, we’re still dealing with its legacy.

©2006 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.