Sex Me Up — Old Skool

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s the beginning of the fall semester at UT and a young man’s (and young woman’s) thoughts turn to sex.

Same as it ever was.

Let’s step into the Way-Back Machine and go back to the beginning of the modern sexual revolution in Austin, (venereal) warts and all, which began with our entry into World War I. This is an excerpt from my still-unpublished book, “If You Can’t Dance, Get On and Ride: The Jazz Age in Austin.”

The (Soldier) Boys Are Back in Town

With the end of World War I, life in Austin, at least for UT students and the rest of Austin’s youth, didn’t settle back down to the normalcy of the pre-war years, despite the passage of Prohibition in 1918. Their lifestyle took off in the direction of the 1960s and ’70s, with racy cars and racy attitudes.

With the end of the war, young veterans came back to the UT campus and things took a decided turn to the wild. They had stared death in the face: if not in battle, in the infirmaries full of young boys dying of the killer influenza that swept the world. They determined to live for the moment, for who knew when you might die? The boys who went to France found ways to assuage their angst; the popular song chorus, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” was not a rhetorical question. Texas boys have always been able to enjoy a good time, and they brought a French-kissed taste for life back to Austin with them.

World War I got people talking about sex for the first time, albeit in a negative sense. The trigger was the rate of venereal disease in the U.S. armed forces. In the 12 weeks ending December 7, 1917, 31 camps across the country reported 21,742 new cases of venereal diseases. And because doctors were repressing or retarding the disease at best, not curing it, many of those men who were subsequently shipped to France to fight were not cured, their disease had only relapsed. The American generals had seen the lessons from the French line, when one regiment that had been in a furious attack went back of the line to recover. Their replacements were a regiment that had been back of the line and had yet to see combat. These replacements had kept busy, but not from fighting the enemy, unless that enemy was the man who wanted the same prostitute you did. Those replacement regiments had more men out of commission from VD than the front-line regiment had lost in the attack. Of the 2300 patients in one hospital, 25 percent had syphilis. In another section, 17,000 cases of VD were concentrated.

And actually, the American generals didn’t have to look to Europe to realize the terrible results that followed upon the toleration of prostitutes near soldiers’ camps. During the Army’s campaign into Mexico, just the year previous, there were regulation on the matter, but the trouble was that commanders used their discretion as to enforcing them, sometimes winking at the evils going on before their eyes, sometimes using half-way measures. The upshot was that venereal diseases spread at an appalling rate.

With our entry into the world war, military camps appeared by the dozens across the country. Thousands of country boys who poured into these camps got their first tastes of booze and booty on their trip to camp, entertainments formerly unavailable to them unless they had a taste for heifers or sheep.

According to the Surgeon General of the War Department, venereal diseases constituted the greatest cause of disability in the army. The large proportion of venereal diseases in the army originated not in the cities near the army camps, but in the home towns from whence the men came, and the cities through which they passed on the way to camp.”

Faced with the fact that 80 per cent of the venereal diseases discovered in the military camps were infected before the men left civil life, military authorities threw aside evasion and prudery – the old shams and fakes about “sexual necessity” and “licentious pleasure is compatible with health.’”

Military authorities began their battle with the clap by educating their soldiers and treating those that were already infected. They set up five-mile zones around their camps to make it harder for the horny young men to have their fun. Finally, they got their fight into the newspapers. They made people talk about it, and use frankly the terms which they had hitherto spoken only in whispers, reminiscent of the time 69-odd years later when folks became uncomfortable when the media talked openly of the dangers of sex without a condom, and how, although the chances of infection were lower, you could catch HIV from oral sex.

In England, by the fall of 1918, the pages of newspapers, even the most conservative, which before the war blinked at such subjects or thrust them into the background, the names of these diseases blazoned forth in large type, and you could read discussions of preventative measures (the rubber), written with frankness, which, three years ago, would have been absolutely impossible.

Even Bishop Lawrence of Massachusetts challenged the country’s newspapers to publish whatever statements of facts the Medical Departments of the Army and Navy were ready to give them. “It is a war question as vital as food and fuel. They say that the people do not like such facts: they offend their taste. Let the people try the people. It is the time that the lid be off and men and women meet this problem as they have met diphtheria and tuberculosis. People are talking. You are talking. I am talking. Our boys and girls are talking. Why not come out into the open and let the talk be healthy, sane, medical, and practiced.”

Good advice, for VD problems were not confined to the armed forces. In August 1918, the Council of National Defense estimated, on a conservative basis, that more than 500,000 adult Texans had some flavor of VD. Texas’ State Health officer was of the opinion that at least one million Texans currently infected. Keep in mind that according to the 1920 U.S. Census, Texas had 4.663 million citizens of all races, ages, and sexual preferences, which means that about half of the adults in Texas had VD, if you wish to believe worst-case estimates.

Even after the war was over, the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Venereal Diseases of the Texas State Board of Health urged local communities to keep up the military’s fight against venereal disease as their boys came marching home.

“You may hear from the unthinking, ‘You are fanatically hounding the poor prostitute,’ or ‘tip up the lid a bit so that everybody can have a good time, and business will be better. An open town may mean more business for some doctors, hospitals, and undertakers. It certainly means prosperity for the pimps and landlords who live on the earnings of the unfortunate prostitute.”

The crusaders even appeared to acknowledge the prevalence of paid homosexual relations when it said, “By county and municipal co-operation isolation detention hospitals are provided for, to minimize the danger from the chronic prostitute – male and female.

In January 1919, “an interesting sex hygiene exhibit” was on display at the local YMCA. It had been sent out by the YMCA’s National War Work Council and was “of particular interest in that it deals with conditions caused by the war.”

All said, it can thus be said that the sexual revolution began with World War I. Once people started talking frankly about sex for the first time, even in a negative sense, the genie was out of the bottle. Men’s wallets began to sport the familiar ring-shaped impression of the reliable rubber, and sporting women could throw most of their inhibitions away, now that disease and pregnancy were options only for the careless.

Those who survived France came home knowledgeable, if not practiced in, those tasty three French pleasures, French kissing, smoking the “French cigarette” and soixante-neuf. The Army and Navy had taught them to bathe and brush their teeth daily, Add to this the post-war daily bath campaign launched by the nation’s plumbers to inform the rest of the country, there was now little to discourage these practices except societal inhibitions and those were wilting fast among the young, especially the students at public, non-denominational colleges, like the University of Texas.


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