Prostitution In Its Relation to the Army on the Mexican Border

M. J. Exner, M. D.

It is a matter of history that prostitution follows the army. In all the European armies at the present time vice and its consequences constitute one of the most serious, if not the most serious, of army problems. In some of these armies the wastage from venereal disease has been frightful. The reliable facts at hand show that during the first eighteen months of the war one of the great powers had more men incapacitated for service by venereal diseases contraction in the mobilization camps than in all the fighting at the front.

From the standpoint of military strength and efficiency, such waste is serious. From the standpoint of social wholesomeness, it is more serious; for it means that not only will these men bring back into the social structure a vast volume of venereal disease to wreck the lives of innocent women and children, but they will bring back into it other influences, attitudes, and practices which will destroy homes, cause misery, and degenerate society.

Is such physical and moral wastage inevitable ? Is it necessary ? Some experience in connection with the army on the Mexican border indicates that it is not.

It was my privilege to spend seven weeks among the troops on the border and in Mexico. I visited all the principal military camps; I dealt with a large number of men individually and intimately with regard to their personal sex problems; I discussed the vice situation at length with many officers of the medical staffs and with commanders; I secured official data with regard to venereal prophylactic treatment and venereal disease; and I observed all the vice districts in company with competent guides. I shall briefly state some of my observations and impressions.

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It was to be expected that serious conditions with regard to prostitution would develop in connection with the army on the border, unless prompt, vigorous, up-to-date measures for its control were enforced. As soon as the order to mobilize when forth, the vice interests in various parts of the country also began to mobilize their forces and to move them to the border. In a number of communities in the vicinity of which troops were located not only were the existing prostitution facilities augmented, but new vice districts were hurriedly built. The environment of practically all the camps quickly became, if it was not already, such as present the severest temptations to immorality — an environment which only those who were powerfully fortified by moral principle and will could withstand.

We must take account of the fact that under such circumstances the soldier is subjected to unusual moral strain, not only from without, but also from within. Let us glance at some of the reasons why this is so.

The vast majority of the men, especially the National Guard, are in their adolescent years — many of them mere boys — the period in which the developing love-instinct, with its strong sexual element and driving desires, powerfully asserts itself. It is the period when desire is strong and will is weak. It is the period when the individual takes the reins of life into his own hands and when he is driven by a strong urge from within to try life for himself in every aspect in which it presents itself. If there is ever a time when the man needs every possible moral support and influence to steady him and keep him true to his best self, this is the time.

Another factor which tends greatly to weaken the soldier’s moral resistance is the fact that he is away from the restraining and supporting influence of home and home society. He has been uprooted out of his normal environment and transplanted into one in which the most powerful influences pull the other way.

Again, the man in uniform is a marked man. In civilian clothes he is one of the common mass. The uniform sets him off from the mass. Unfortunately, this works for the advantage of the forces of evil more than the forces of good.

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A factor which greatly enhances the moral strain upon the soldier is the process of leveling down to the lower element to which there is a powerful tendency in the military camp, or wherever a heterogeneous body of men is gathered together under conditions of enforced intimacy. In the tent or mess hall it is as a rule the coarser element that creates the atmosphere of the group. They take supreme delight in retailing their obscene stories and giving expression to the foul imagery of their minds in vulgar talk or jest. When we face the fact that, as yet, for most young men these obscene conversations with their fellows are about their only source of ready information on matters of love or sex, questions in which they have a deep instinctive interest and which they are burning to have interpreted, we can better appreciate the sensualizing, distorting effect of such an atmosphere. Those of use who know fully the degrading atmosphere that prevails in promiscuous male groups, such as are found in the average military camp, can but have a profound admiration for that small proportion of men who are able to live in it day after day and month after month and successfully resist being drawn into lives of immorality. The terrific down-pull of the military camp, as of all similar male group live, cannot easily be exaggerated.

Loneliness also contributes to the cause of immorality in the soldier. Nothing on the border impressed me more forcefully than the loneliness-in-the-crowd of many of the soldiers. I have seen hundreds of them walking the streets of border towns at night, with the restlessness and gnawing of loneliness expressed in face and manner. Many have told me that they visited immoral houses not because of any strong craving for immoral relations but because of their desire for sympathetic companionship with the opposite sex, which desire is strengthened by absence from home.

The influences which we have enumerated, which tend to weaken the moral resistance of the soldier, call for thorough moral sanitation in the environment, so that the soldier may be given a fair chance to keep his moral balance. Let us see what has been the actual situation.

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Extensive prostitution in its worst forms was accessible to all military camps on the border and in Mexico, in most cases easily accessible, with the exception of outposts and a few points where the evil was greatly reduced by vigorous repressive measures on the part of the military authorities. I will cite a few typical examples. In doing so I shall indicate the communities by letter, in order to avoid seeming to attach undue blame to individual commanders. While many officers have not done what they should have done and what they had authority to do to minimize the evil, blame for the bad conditions which have existed must rest much more largely upon the civil authorities of the communities in or near which troops were located. However inadequate or misdirected the efforts of the military authorities may have been, they at least did something, and while that something did not lessen, for the most part, the practice of prostitution, it did serve to keep venereal disease at a low rate. The communities, on the other hand, so far as I know without exception, not only failed to cooperate adequately with the military authorities in suppressing prostitution or making it inaccessible to the soldiers, but many of them vigorously opposed such measures on the ground that it would hurt business or for political reasons.

Community A is a border town, on the outskirts of which three military camps were located. In the town a district of white and Mexican women was situation in which prostitution was extensively practiced without restraint on the part of civil or military authorities. One frequenter of the district estimated that there were about fifty women in the district. One house of seven women catered to officers only. Most of the houses were unsanitary Mexican shacks, and in these the women were of very low grade. At many of these places men were observed to be standing in line to await their turn. Here, as at most other points, the district was “regulated,” by the military authorities. The regulation consisted of compulsory examination of women, on the average of once in two weeks, the patrol of the district by the military police and the enforcement of certain regulation aimed at preventing serious disturbances. With the exception

( 209) of three points, these regulations were not designed to restrict the practice of prostitution, but only in a measure to reduce its consequences and to avoid disturbances. In most places guards were stationed in the houses of prostitution for that purpose. That this sort of guard duty became thoroughly demoralizing to the guards, goes without saying. They had nothing to do but amuse themselves with the women, and as a rule they became very familiar with them.

In this place many saloons were run in defiance of the “dry law” and in the evening they were constantly crowded with soldiers. While stalled in an automobile by the roadside one pay-day evening, I witnessed for an hour and a half a constant procession of drunken soldiers, reeling in the mud toward the cap. A large proportion of them seemed to be mere boys.

Community B is a town of about 15,000 where a considerable body of troops was located. It had three distinct vice districts, a Mexican, a negro, and a white, the last having six large houses with many women. During my two visits to the white district, in company with a member of the military police, a constant procession of soldiers was going in and out of the houses. Therefore, the military authorities issued an order forbidding soldiers to enter this district, and stationed guards to enforce the order. It was strictly enforced, and I was unable to find any soldiers in the district. This demonstrated the ability of the officers to make prostitution inaccessible to the soldiers under conditions where the civil authorities refused to cooperate in making it so, as was the case here. It would have been a far easier task to have made the negro and the white districts inaccessible to the men also, but they were permitted to operate without restriction because in them it was possible to keep down serious rowdying. The civil authorities were opposed to abolishing or restricting prostitution because of political complications.

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Community C is a border town in which the Mexican population far exceeds the white. White, negro and Mexican prostitution was extensive and operated without restraint by civil or military authorities. My guide informed me that there were five white houses, with from six to ten women each, — six houses of Mexican women, many scattered negro houses, and much clandestine prostitution.

The “dry law” seemed to be entirely disregarded. Beer saloons operated openly, and some of them actually within the limits of the military camp.

Community D is one of the large cities in the southwest, in the vicinity of which at the time of my visit over 50,000 troops were stationed. Here prostitution was carried on very extensively without restriction beyond the usual “regulation.” Not only was the old notorious segregated district in full operation, but an extensive new “crib system” had been built in another part of the city. In but a very few cities in this country can anything so bad be found. From noon until early morning soldiers in great numbers were found in these districts. In the evening they were thronged, and before many of the “crib” doors soldiers stood in line.

In answer to questions, one of these women, who was below the average in attractiveness, stated that on a good night she served about 50 men, and that on the previous Saturday she had served 60, and on Sunday 40. We learned from reliable sources that many other women served a much larger number. This woman estimated that there were about 200 white professional prostitutes in the city. This was probably much below the truth. This does not take account of the Mexican, negro, and clandestine prostitution, all of which was extensive. A military medical officer of high rank, in trying to show that prostitution was really quite limited, said “I do not believe that there are more than 500 prostitutes in the city.”

The chief medical officer of one of the division told me that a few days before a prostitute came to a medical friend of his in the city for treatment. She was found to be in the active stage of

( 211) syphilis, and during the previous two days had had sexual relations with 120 men.

Community E is a little, straggling village of huts, but when troops were stationed on its outskirts provision for prostitution was quickly made. It was carried on in unsanitary adobe shacks, one section for whit, and one section for negro women. The striking feature here was that the district was situated within the lines of military camps and was protected and “regulated” by the military authorities. The only restriction to its operation was that soldiers were not allowed to visit the district within certain hours of the day.

I need not further enumerated examples. These are typical of the whole border situation, with a few exceptions, of which we shall speak later.

What seems to me to have been the inexcusable situation with reference to prostitution was found in connection with the troops in Mexico. At each of the two points where the main bodies of troops were located, a prostitution district was maintained within the lines of the camp and supervised by military and supervised by military officers. No man could gain entrance to the district without having a certificate showing him to be free from disease and without the necessary two dollars. The women were housed in adobe shacks, and, according to the statement of quite a number of the men, they were for the most part repulsive Mexican women. Many of the men were resentful because of the low order of women provided. One man seemed to voice the sentiment of many when he said “It’s an insult to the troops. If they want to provide something of this kind, let them give us something decent.”

When we consider that in these instances the military commanders had no established prostitution nor any complications with municipal authorities to deal with, and that the men were not allowed to enter Mexican communities, it is difficult to find any excuse for the situation. In these instances prostitution was deliberately provided by the officers on the assumption that it was necessary for the contentment or well-being of the men. This was borne out in my discuss of the matter with

( 212) officers. One cavalry officer of high rank attempted to justify the matter something like this: “You must remember that we have among the troops men of a very low order — men with little brains and powerful passions. If prostitution were not provided, these men would disobey orders, go to Mexican villages and get mixed up with the women and thereby possibly bring on war.” According to this officer’s argument, prostitution was necessary to guard against the possible failure of military discipline. He failed to see that a guard against the possible breach of discipline on the part of the lowest element, which he admitted to constitute but a small portion of the rank and file of the troops, he would deliberately stimulate a process of leveling down the whole body of troops in this low element and increase the evil many-fold.

Let us now look at several points were prostitution was more or less restricted by the commanders.

Community F was a small border town where several regiments of southern troops were located. As soon as the camp was established, a “syndicate” proceeded hastily to knock together a long board shack, partitioned off into ‘cribs’ for prostitution purposes. The chaplains together sought to secure an injunction against this venture, but the district judge said that nothing could be done. It was discovered that in the absence of the judge from his district, the judge of a neighboring district would issue an injunction. Taking advantage of this, the chaplains secured an injunction, and the building stands unfinished today. Prostitutes who had come to occupy it left town. Unfortunately nothing was done to put a check to the Mexican clandestine prostitution which was very extensive and very bad. A large amount of venereal disease contracted in the mobilization camps had been brought with the troops so that practically all the prostitutes quickly became infected, and a high venereal rate existed among them.

Community G is a border town of considerable size, where a large body of regular troops and guards from southern states were located. Existing prostitution facilities were being augmented, when the post commander demanded the immediate abolishing

( 213) of all segregated prostitution on threat of removing the troops to another locality. Needless to say, the civil authorities complied with the demand, and most of the women left town. Unfortunately here, too, the problem was thereby considered solved, and the more serious one of clandestine prostitution was not touched. Here, also, this was complicated by the fact that a large amount of venereal disease was brought to the border from the mobilization camp in the vicinity of large southern cities and that therefore the prostitutes became quickly infected. At the time of my visit, three southern regiments had just arrived. On inspection one revealed forty-three cases of venereal disease, and the second thirty-seven cases. The third had not been examined.

Camp H, in which a very large body of troops was station, was situation practically in the desert near a very small community in which open prostitution did not exist, and some miles away from other small communities. Here, therefore, prostitution was difficult to access, not so much by virtue of repressive measures, but by virtue of location. One house of white women was operating near a smaller camp some miles away, and there were no very ready means of transportation.

Camp I was a large camp, located near two small towns. Here, also prostitution and saloons sought to establish themselves. But the commander suppressed both absolutely with an iron hand and never relaxed his vigilance. As fast as any source of prostitution or of the sale of intoxicants could be located, he got rid of them assuming the authority to do so when he did not technically possess it, on the grounds of military efficiency. Prostitution was practically inaccessible to the large contingent of troops, except as a few men might secure leave to visit larger centers many miles away. An example of the commander’s method may be of interest.

A saloon keeper opened a saloon near the camp. The commander told him he could not sell “booze” to his men, and advised him to move on. The saloon keeper replied, “I have my license; you cannot stop me.” The commander again assured him that he could not sell liquor to his men, and again advised

( 214) him to leave. The saloon keeper answered “I’ll show you.” The commander issued an order that no soldier should visit the place, and station a guard before the door to enforce the order. The saloon keeper remained a week, after which he departed, not being able to do any business. At no other point were vice and drink so consistently and thoroughly suppressed.

Now it will be of interest to inquire what has been the reaction of these repressive measures on the men in his command. According to the arguments of many officers, in support of prostitution, we should expect extreme discontent, clamoring for prostitution facilities, revolt, mutiny. The facts are, that no more contented, more orderly, better disciplined, better trained, more efficient, or more loyal body of troops could be found anywhere on the border. These facts can readily be verified from anyone conversant with the situation. Furthermore, these men were proud of the moral reputation of their regiments. Many of the men said to me, with a ring of pride, “Oh, we have a clean bunch here.” This feeling of group pride was everywhere conspicuous among the military units of this camp, and was in itself a restraining influence. It was unique; I found it nowhere else. The fact that prostitution was actually not indulged in to any extent by these men is shown in that this cam had by far the lowest prophylaxis rate as will be seen later.

This thorough test of the application of repressive measures with reference to prostitution and drink with so large a body of troops for so long a time, is sufficient utterly to refute the contention of so large a proportion of army officers that sexual indulgence is necessary for the contentment and well-being of the men. The soldier is human, and men in the unstable period of adolescence, under the unusual moral strain incident to military service, cannot be expected to keep clean when prostitution in its most flagrant forms is placed right under their noses, with the sanction and encouragement of their officers. But give them a reasonably wholesome environment and place a high value upon clean manhood and moral integrity, and they will measure up to what is expected of them and of their own better selves, just as did the men of Camp I.

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It is pretty generally known that the army has been employing a system of venereal prophylaxis, aimed at reducing the amount of venereal disease. This has been carried out with fair consistency on the Medical border. Every soldier who has sexual relations with a strange woman is required to report to the medical officers to receive prophylactic treatment within six hours. If a man contracts venereal disease and the records do not show that he reported for prophylaxis, he is arrested, his pay is taken from him, and he is deprived of other privileges. It is a policy to treat the man who contracts venereal disease under these conditions with very little sympathy. This system seems to be working fairly satisfactorily. While a good many men depend upon prophylactic measures of their own, and others take the risk without any,, probably two-thirds of the men actually do report for treatment. These records give us an approximate idea of the actual extent of prostitution. I have worked out the data on the basis of a monthly rate, though the records secured over periods vary from a month to four months. The monthly rates of prophylactic treatments were as follows: —



Monthly rate
per cent.
Camp I     0.566
Camp H     3.78
Camp E   11.2
Camp B   14.0
Camp F   15.4
Camp C   16.56
Camp G   20.4

We see from the figures that two Camps I and H, in which prostitution was most inaccessible to the men, had by far the lowest prophylaxis rate — 0.566 per cent, in Camp I and 3.78 per cent. in Camp H, as against from 11 per cent. to 20 per cent. in other camps. Experience on the border clearly establishes the fact that the extent of prostitution is in direct ration to its accessibility.

On of the most interesting and most significant facts which this study brings out is the apparent success with which the system of prophylactic treatment is meeting in preventing venereal

( 216) disease. Whichever way our sympathies may lie in the discussion of the desirability of “making prostitution safe” by employing prophylactic measures, we must take account of the fact that it does actually seem to accomplish the reduction of venereal disease in large measure, and we cannot escape the conclusion that this is, in itself, a great social gain. One can but be impressed with the very low venereal rate found among the troops compared with the extend of sexual indulgence and with the venereal rate which was common before such measures were employed. By far the largest proportion of venereal disease found among the troops was contracted in the mobilization camps before prophylactic measures were instituted. The venereal rate of cases contracted on the border, of the units from which I was able to secure them, follow: —

Camp Number of
Number of
New Cases
Number of
Old Cases
Average Monthly Rate
of New Cases
per cent.
I   7,000 2 1/2 3 32 0.017
H   2,850 4 3 17 0.026
D 12,928 1 28 not given 0.216
B   1,244 4 9 20 0.4
C   1,019 2 1/2 8 8 0.31  
G   1,165 2 19 not given 1.63  

The column marked “old cases” represent cases of disease brought to the border from the barracks or mobilization camps, and contracted before prophylactic measures were instituted. They are not included in figuring the rate. The record of old cases is not very accurate. Some regiments not given here brought a much larger proportion of cases to the border. I have already stated that at the time of my visit two regiments had just brought 80 cases to Camp G. There were 7000 men in this camp on October 1, and at that time 134 cases of venereal disease were found on inspection. This includes the 80 cases just mentioned. One southern regiment of which I know developed a frightful venereal rate in its mobilization camp, near one of the big southern cities. It had 76 new cases at one time.

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The following record of prophylactic treatment and venereal cases of a regiment of regulars covering nearly two-and-a-half years, a record kept with great accuracy, further shows the effectiveness of venereal prophylaxis.

May, 1914 827 53 1
June 1914 757 103 7
July 1914 700 146 4
August 1914 684 178 0
September 1914 726 196 0
November 1914 824 227 2
December 1914 788 151 1
January 1915 723 278 3
February 1915 653 379 0
March 1915 744 354 4
April 1915 791 397 4
May 1915 788 678 3
June 1915 793 663 2
July 1915 811 657 5
August 1915 841 523 5
September 1915 839 490 9
October 1915 840 332 8
November 1915 815 305 6
December 1915 800 350 8
January 1916 833 402 11
February 1916 940 450 5
March 1916 927 370 5
April 1916 921 405 8
May 1916 913 450 4
June 1916 900 285 3
July 1916 901 372 5
August 1916 1004 280 9
September 1916 1068 420 5
October 1916 1046 450  18

Upon comparing the venereal rate under prophylactic treatment wit the amount of indulgence in prostitution, as indicated by the prophylaxis rate, we find it surprising low. We cannot escape the conclusion that venereal prophylaxis as now carried out in the army proves effective in large measure.

It is significant that the two camps in which prostitution was most inaccessible have by fare the lowest venereal rate.

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We have shown the limited extent to which prostitution on the border was suppressed or rendered inaccessible to the soldiers. Why was this so “ What has been the attitude of the military authorities? It would be unfair to say that it was one of indifference. It is know that the Secretary of War at Washington was seriously concerned over the government’s responsibility to the troops in this matter; that he made himself conversant with the facts, and that he made urgent recommendations and specific suggestions to the commanders of posts with reference to minimizing prostitution on the border, and that he gave them authority to change the location of their troops, if necessary, to accomplish that end. Had these recommendations been fully carried out, we should probably have come nearer to solving the prostitution problem on the border than has ever been done in relation to any army. Why was it not done? While indifference, or worse, must be ascribed to some officers, it would be unjust to ascribe indifference in the matter to most of the officers of rank who were in command of large bodies of troops. For the most part the commanders of troops and the chiefs of medical staffs were deeply concerned about the problem of prostitution, but they were concern almost wholly about its results, not about prostitution itself; and all their energies were directed to minimizing venereal disease. I rarely met an officer who did not take for granted that prostitution could not or should not be abolished. They assumed that it is necessary for the contentment and well-being of the men, or at least, that it is inevitable. Many a medical officer told me, with great pride, of what he regarded as his up-to-date manner of dealing with the problem — inspection of prostitutes, prophylactic treatment of exposed men, and lectures on venereal disease. Whenever I suggested the possibility of attacking no only the results of prostitution, but prostitution itself, I was looked upon as “too idealistic,” or as a dreaming, unpractical reformer. With but rare exceptions army officers, both high and low, are unfamiliar with modern studies of prostitution, such, for example, as have been made by the Bureau of Social Hygiene and with modern methods of dealing with it. Segregation of

( 219) prostitutes, a method which has been so completely shown to be ineffective, that it has not even a crutch to stand on, is generally regarded as the best solution of the problem.

In closing I wish to sum up some of my observations and conclusions: —

1. The experience on the Mexican border shows that, so long as the handling of the problem of prostitution as it affects the army, is left to the discretion of the individual commanders, there can be no hop of a satisfactory solution. Their attitude is too varied, and their knowledge of the problem too backward. There is needed as clearly defined a police of moral sanitation as the government has of physical sanitation, and that policy must be made effective in uniform procedure through military order from headquarters. Any policy with reference to this question to be sound, or effective in preserving the moral integrity of the soldier, must be based on the assumption that sexual indulgence is unnecessary.

Prostitution in relation to the army is a question with which the citizens of this country as a whole must more fully concern themselves, for it is not likely that the army will proceed in advance of public opinion and demand.

2. The extent of the practice of prostitution is in direct ration to its accessibility. Large numbers of men are drawn to segregated vice districts from curiosity who will not seek prostitution when it is inconspicuous or difficult to access. I have shown that by far the lowest proportion of illicit indulgence was fount in the two camps where prostitution was the least accessible.

3. The repressive measures enforced against prostitution in Camp I, with completely happy results, clearly show the incorrectness of the contention that prostitution is a necessity in connection with the army. The proportion of men who rebel at such restriction and will seek prostitution at whatever cost is comparatively small. My observation leads me to believe that while the problem at some other points was more complex, a consistent application of similar methods at these points would have reduced the evil at least 75 per cent.


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