The Persistence Of The Serpent

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A defining moment in the retreat from openness came in 1934, when the New York State commissioner of public health, Dr. Thomas Parran, was told that he could not use the word syphilis in a radio address—and promptly refused to go on the air. But then the tide turned once more. The family breakups, vagrancy, and general poverty of the Depression years increased the number of VD infections and forced a public response in the New Deal, if only on the ground that war on economic stagnation required healthy workers. Parran himself was named U.S. Surgeon General, and ASHA continued its research, legal, and educational work, supporting such activities as community and industry drives to identify and treat gonorrhea and syphilis carriers, plus state legislation mandating blood tests before obtaining a marriage license. In 1938 Congress passed a Venereal Disease Control Act that provided federal assistance to states in carrying out anti-VD programs.

Conversion to ASHA’s viewpoint was not unanimous—Roman Catholic officials, for instance, objected to the advocacy of condoms (actually avoided by ASHA); but despite pockets of resistance, government involvement in VD control continued to grow and ballooned after 1941 in the huge new campaigns to subdue vice and VD in the name of the war effort.

The 1940s brought a breakthrough when penicillin seemed to hold out the prospect of ending VD altogether—a prospect not cheering to some physicians like Dr. John Stokes, who worried that if science eliminated those diseases “without commensurate attention to the development of . . . self-control,” it might be “bringing mankind to its fall instead of fulfillment.” These precise sentiments had been voiced some thirty years earlier by one medical man who thought that if we could “eradicate the [venereal] diseases, we would . . . in one short generation, fall wholly under the domination of the animal passions.”

One doctor feared eradicating VD would put mankind “wholly under the domination of the animal passions.”

Conservatives, however, had no need to fear the elimination of what we shall henceforth call STDs. By the 1960s and 1970s, after the Kinsey Report and the Pill had wrought yet another sexual revolution, new or resurgent forms of them were appearing—genital herpes, chlamydia, chancroid, human papillomavirus (HPV), or genital warts—stoutly resistant to existing antibiotics. By then ASHA, rechristened in 1960, had moved toward a more “holistic” approach consistent with the switch from “social hygiene” to “social health.” It was investing more energy in collaboration with government programs to attack disorders broadly associated with STDs: drug use, promiscuity, teen-age pregnancy. But in light of the alarming increase in new infections, ASHA undertook to co-sponsor increased medical research, while it continued its tradition of spreading public information via the media as well as through a device undreamed of in 1914—the confidential STD information hot line founded in 1979, which fielded nearly two hundred thousand calls a year. Then came HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS. An AIDS twenty-four-hour hot line was set up in 1986; it now answers about 1.5 million calls a year.

The AIDS epidemic itself defies a closing generalization, though the attentive reader will find that many of today’s arguments about dealing with it (medically, morally, or in any other fashion) echo controversial positions struck throughout the years of ASHA’s existence. The organization’s birthday history, however, concludes with the game statement that its mission remains unchanged: “to bring the message about STDs home to Americans for as long as it takes, until the problem is solved [author’s italics].

There speaks the progressive voice, to which I listen as a historian with mixed pleasure and sadness. I cherish the survival of the spirit that insists that all problems have some reasonable solution. Without it, societies can become paralyzed by cynicism or gloom. But idealists who read history carefully can’t deny that human emotions and instincts too often override reason—especially in contested areas like sex. Periods of “repression” and “liberation” may alternate, but STDs and debate over their proper treatment will go on a long time, keeping step with ASHA’s hopeful endeavors.