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The Allies and sexual exploitation

LAURENCE REES: I was shocked to learn from your book that so many US troops in Belgium and then in Germany had sexually transmitted diseases.

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: It’s astonishing to think that 15% of the US Army in the European operations may have had a sexually transmitted disease. That is perhaps 300,000 American soldiers in Western Europe walking around with a sexually transmitted disease and not really knowing what to do about it and fearing that if they seek out an army provided clinic they will be punished. And indeed you will know that the punishment could be as little as a fine but it could be a 64 dollar fine which was often called the 64 dollar question which was, you know, have you got the clap? And if the answer was yes then you could be fined 64 dollars from your pay cheque. So 300,000 American men didn’t arrive in Europe with VD, they got it when they were in France and in Belgium. And that opens up an interesting question to the historian: how did this happen? The answer is not too difficult to find. The average American GI was supplied with an extraordinary amount of luxury items in his normal monthly rations. Not just the food that he was able to carry with him but soap, chocolate, cigarettes, alcohol, paper, pens, all kinds of ordinary and some not so ordinary things to the American, he carried in his heavy 60 pound pack with him, wherever he went.

These were extraordinarily valuable luxuries and they could be used and traded for sex. So there was a widespread entirely visible and public traffic in sexual favours. Americans used their wealth, their status, their power and their luxury goods to do what most 18 to 21 year old men are thinking about and wanting to do after they’ve been in battle and a period of very traumatic conflict. They sought out sex and they sought out sexual favours, sexual partners, and sometimes it was just because you wanted to have someone at the dance in a fairly sort of controlled environment. But often this was a fairly illicit dark side of the war that we don’t like to talk about. It’s uncomfortable to imagine so many fathers and grandfathers of current generation of Americans traipsing through Belgium picking up sexually transmitted diseases. But should we be surprised to find this in an army of this size? I don’t think so.

LAURENCE REES: And why then was the US Army so against the opening of brothels as one way to control this?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: The army felt that what it should do is find the man with VD and heal him or provide him with prophylactics, or enough medicine so that he could be healed and then to discipline him, saying don’t do it again. The army did not want to encourage soldiers to go to brothels, even licensed brothels. That was considered a bad policy. The Belgians took a very different view which was brothels are as old as history, we can provide a service to the Americans that they want and we can do it in a way that is somewhat controlled so that we can have our health system, inspect prostitutes, license them, control them and keep an eye on them. But also we’ll know who’s a prostitute and who isn’t, so that young respectable women from respectable families will be encouraged to stay away from intercourse of one kind or another with American soldiers, because they’ll know that there’s a stigma associated with anyone who consorts with an American soldier. And they’ll see that stigma and they’ll be deterred from engaging in any kind of friendly relationship or unfriendly relationship with American soldiers. So the Belgians had a very, you might say, continental perspective on the matter, and it was completely rejected by the American military authorities who didn’t want it in anyway to encourage the soldiers to go and pursue sex in brothels.

LAURENCE REES: It's a grey area - this idea that American soldiers were 'buying' sex from desperate people. It's a kind of soldier sex tourism.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: That’s one way of putting it. I think that if we want to place this story of sexual relations into the broader context we have to keep coming back to the fact that a liberating army has all the cards and all the power. They have the weapons they have the wealth, they have the moral high ground and they physically control the territory so there’s no such thing as a consensual relationship on any plane whatsoever between a liberating army and a liberated people. So whether it’s a sexual relationship or the beginnings of a political relationship or an economic relationship in which the United States is beginning to plan for the recovery of Western Europe, the relationship is entirely unequal.

So the temptation is constantly there to exploit that power, to exploit those advantages, and the Americans and the British as occupying and liberating powers both did that. And that trickled all the way down to the average GI who was happy to exploit his power for his own personal pleasure and his own personal sexual interests. But we have to put this back into a context of a very unequal relationship that was established by the very active liberation.