VD in Wartime Australia

Last night I was lucky enough to be a guest at Dr Ian Denham’s enlightening account of the sexual plight of the ANZACS during WW1. He regaled us with the fascinating story of the spread of what was then called ‘VD’ (venereal disease) among Australian soldiers during WW1. Within 6 weeks of deployment many of these young (18-22 y/o white) Australian and NZ men had landed in Egypt and contracted syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid in

Dr Ian Denham presenting to a group of sexual health physicians on the history of VD in Wartime Australia
Ointment used for the treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis which contained mercury! Dr Ian Denham presenting to a group of sexual health physicians on the history of VD in wartime Australia

strains so severe, they died. The local brothels of Wasa were full of very young captured girls (few women) from parts of the middle east and north Africa – I can only shudder to imagine their fates physically, emotionally and sexually.

The symptoms of these conditions for the soldiers were so severe that in many cases they were rendered

Dr Ian Denham presenting to a group of seual health physicians on the history of VD in wartime Australia
Reusable condoms issued to sexually active soldiers (if they were lucky) during WW1. Dr Ian Denham presenting to a group of sexual health physicians on the history of VD in wartime Australia

immobilised due to swollen joints, chronic health deterioration and extreme skin sores. They were sent back to Australia (Langwarrin specifically) to an internment camp for those with VD and shamed for their conduct. These were young guys with no sex ed, no training and essentially no idea! Their salaries were cut off and they were effectively dishonoured by the system and forgotten. More here if you’re interested http://www.canberratimes.com.au/…/secret-wwi-history-of-aus…

In context, this was all before the advancement of sexual health medicine, consensual sex work (as we know it) and safer sex practices. It remains unknown how much sex was occurring between the soldiers also. Sexual behaviour as a consequence of war during this time was not taken into consideration. Ettie Rout (see below) was a campaigner working to shift the stigma of VD and sex work, but her efforts were dismissed in Aus, UK and her native NZ. She was called wicked and abhorrent by the authorities for her attempts to provide relief to those engaging in (non-marital) sex during the war. France however recognised her efforts and rewarded her with one of the highest honors in the country for her services to public health and sexual well-being. Incredibly progressive at that time. Sadly she suicided alone in the Cook Islands years later.

Ettie Rout.

Hearing all this made me so grateful for the advances in sexual medicine we enjoy today and the relentless campaigning of sex educators like Ettie whose work is still stigmatised as being shameful and superfluous. It is not! 100 years ago people lost their lives over this stuff. In many parts of the world, people still do. All this happens because of stigma and a lack of access to medicine. Things we can avoid by simply opening our minds and hearts a little more. Poor early detection due to fear of being diagnosed and stigmatised keeps people in the dark. Get tested. Talk about your practices and get treatment where its available.

Not to mention the extraordinary services of sex workers around the world, without whom many men (and some women) wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fullness of their sexuality without health risks. Power to all those living sexually charged and attentive lives and those raising awareness and defeating stigma in their communities. Onward and upward.