Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Sunday 28th May 2017 | Manchester, UK

The First World War: a Sexy Affair?

Using the term ‘sexy’ to describe the First World War is not only majorly outdated but a more literal mistake.

War has often changed the relation between masculinity and femininity;positive impacts for women have occurred such as greater work and social opportunities with idols such as Florence Nightingale sparking feminist thought or women gaining work prospectsduring the First World War. However, as is perhaps more common, negative aspects of war expose a subjugated gender’s vulnerability not only highlighting their struggles but exploiting them at the hands of misogynistic values.Military Brothels Photo

Examples of women abused and raped at war are endless;however it is the specificcorrelation between prostitution and war which is the focus of this article. Wars throughout history, situated in most continents of the world have experienced increased prostitution during wars for many reasons. The struggle for domestic survival in a patriarchal society absent of men led some to prostitution in the American civil war, opportunistic and economically driven prostitution was recorded in the Vietnam War and prostitution or sexual slavery was enforced by the Japanese army in the Second World War.

The ‘Great War’ was no exception. Legal and state-endorsed brothels were set up in France called ‘maisonstolèrèes’ satisfying the demands of both Allied and German forces. While the exact number of visitors to the maisonstolèrèes is unknown, some single streets recorded hundreds of thousands of British soldiers utilising the available prostitutes. Equally we can use the heavy spread of STIs to show the extent of prostitution with 150,000 British soldiers being treated for venereal disease.

However, the largely ignored story is the way women were portrayed and impacted by the ruling male gender in this era. The French were largely disdainful of the individual prostitutes, claiming they had relaxed morals. Many of the military officials believed that these immoral women were ruining the regimented structure implemented in French soldiers. With little empathy, many at the time blamed alcohol for the women’s corrupting behaviour, disregarding one of the mainreasons for their behaviour: male demand.

Across the channel in Britain, the vast majority of leading military personnel supported the availability of prostitution for the soldiers. There was a widely accepted view that the men separated from their wives needed to satisfy their sexual desires in order to fight with concentration and vigour. This obviously entirely ignored the notion that the women in brothels had more utility than to sexually satisfy the male heroes. Sexual relief was the main justification for this exploitation of many women and maisonstolèrèes were viewed as the most hygienic and safest way to achieve this. ‘Cleanliness’ was another factor which led to increased misogynistic views. The spread of sexual diseases meant this class of women prostitutes weredepicted as dirty. Propaganda was released warning of these ‘unclean women’ hence stereotypes and generalisations were formed, again undermining the great feats of women in the First World War.

However, some don’t believe that prostitution in the First World War led to a declined social position of women. There is an argument that even though women were objectified, made scapegoats and portrayed as unclean, their very presence in the war was a cultural and social change for the better. Women were part of society in the First World War: mothers had to look after orphans and their homes, workers were utilised in the factories and in this case there was an evident dependency upon the women’s sexuality to benefit the allied forces. Prostitution in the First World War elevated women to a position where they were disdained and unfairly blamed for the failure of some men. However, perhaps they were also elevated to a position of importance which had not been achieved before in Britain and France.

One of the most interesting things about this topic is its historiography. To this day debates on male heterosexuality, male suffering from sexual diseases and male fighting ability despite unsatisfied sexual desire often takes precedence over the effect that war and wartime prostitution has on women. It is imperative that this patriarchal portrayal is opposed as strongly as possible; wars are often remembered to avoid repetition, this is an impossible task when large parts of society are ignored by our representation of history. The overtly male dominated study of history represents this masculine dominated period of time with a vast lack of consideration for the changes in ideology that were caused by an era of objectified and abused women.

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