guest post by Alexandra M. Lord
In 1937, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) took its most daring step forward to date. In a short pamphlet aimed at all Americans, the nation’s foremost public health organization gravely informed readers that “the use of the rubber (condom) during sexual intercourse . . . protects both the man and the woman.” In just two short sentences buried at the back of a public health pamphlet, the PHS had broken one of the greatest taboos in discussions about sexually transmitted diseases.
Although the Public Health Service had been aggressively engaged in fighting what it saw as a nation-wide epidemic of venereal disease since 1918, agency officials had focused primarily on discouraging Americans from having sex outside of wedlock and from having sex with an untested partner. But in 1937, frustrated by the failure of their sex education campaign to eradicate venereal disease, public health officials decided to do the unthinkable. They would now provide Americans with the information they needed to avoid sexually transmitted diseases—even if they had sex with an untested partner.
There was nothing new or radical in the Public Health Service’s promotion of condoms as a means of preventing venereal disease. Since the eighteenth century, Americans and Europeans had used condoms to protect themselves against these diseases. During the 1920s, as the introduction of automated technology enabled manufacturers to produce condoms cheaply, quickly, and on an unprecedented scale, condom use became increasingly widespread.
What was new in 1937 was that the federal government ceased to play the role of a moral policeman in sexual matters; seeing venereal disease solely as a public health matter meant that the Public Health Service needed to speak candidly about prevention.
The federal government had taken a dramatic step forward. While the Public Health Service would, in years to come, often fall back on simple assertions that abstinence was the only real method of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, the precedent set by this pamphlet would ensure that a growing number of Americans would receive increasingly more comprehensive sex education than their parents had.
Today, we associate condoms and Condom Day with the prevention of AIDS, and we tend to think of the battle over public discussions about condoms as a new debate which emerged in the 1980s. But if we look back to the 1930s and see the steps the Public Health Service took over seventy years ago, we may recognize that the focus should always be first and foremost on protection from and prevention of disease—not morality—when discussing public health.
Alexandra M. Lord received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, served as a historian with the U.S. Public Health Service, and is author of Condom Nation: The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.