The New York Review of Books just published a review, by Heather Ann Thompson, The Trials of Nina McCall, by Scott Wasserman Stern; about a young Michigan girl institutionalized and brutalized on the charge of possibly having contracted a venereal disease.
Politicians, with the support of religious leaders, have always been inclined to impose themselves in the sex life of citizens – mainly women. The Comstock Law of the 1870’s outlawed the circulation of information and use of contraceptives, including condoms, in an effort to discourage sex outside of marriage.
At the turn of the century, before the advent of antibiotics, syphilis and gonorrhea were at epidemic levels. During the First World War what was known as sexually transmitted infections (STI) became a military concern. Soldiers on leave before deploying to the battlefront were being infected resulting in over 10,000 being discharged from the war effort.
In 1910 a compilation of laws known as The American Plan was instituted. What was originally meant to combat prostitution around military bases quickly spun out to a nationwide purge. The federal government divided the nation into ten sections and supervisors and field representatives were sent out to investigate prostitution and female promiscuity. This movement was championed by churches and well-to-do women who were concerned about their husband’s sexuality.
Many of these field representatives (often women) and the doctors designated to the program were zealots. Should they decide a woman was likely to have an STI they had the authority to detain her, subject her to a medical examination and quarantine her indefinitely; forcing her, against her will, to painful and dangerous medical treatment involving regular injections of mercury.
These women were deemed a menace to society and the ‘detention hospitals’ where they were held in captivity were cruel and inhumane prisons. Women who resisted treatment were often physically tortured, including an early form or waterboarding
The American Plan was abused by doctors, field reps and local law enforcement. Young women could be detained for simply being at a dance unescorted, or being in the company of a group of men. The doctor could declare a woman likely to contract STI in the future and place her into the program.
Of course, woman of wealth or position were not in danger – if they contracted a sexual disease they could be treated by their private physician and the condition appropriately covered up. This was a program aimed at poor women and disproportionately women of color.
The American Plan is still alive today and was recently resurrected as the justification for enforced quarantine of a medical woman returning from treating Ebola victims in Africa.
I do not understand why men who love sex have vilified women’s sexuality, beginning with Eve.