May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Fifty Years Ago
In the aftermath of World War II, Americans in many fields struggled to absorb the conflict’s lessons. Tacticians analyzed its military successes and failures; scientists worked to apply technical advances; diplomats groped toward an understanding of the new global politics. And in the May 1947 American Journal of Sociology , a pair of psychiatrists reported the results of their own wartime research in a paper called “The Sex Lives of Unmarried Men.”
The study’s authors, Leslie B. Hohman and Bertram Schaffner, had given psychological exams to forty-six hundred Army draftees, most of them in their early twenties, during the summer and fall of 1941. Their chief finding: Of the unmarried white men in the sample, nearly 80 percent had already had sexual intercourse. More shocking still, 71 percent of these (or 56 percent of the entire group) had had intercourse with “nice” girls—ones they would have married and introduced to their mother and sister. (All female sex partners other than nice girls were classified as prostitutes.) To readers concerned for what these results said about their daughters’ morals, the authors offered dubious reassurance: “It does not follow from this, of course, that half of all ‘nice’ girls in a community have had sex relations,” since “several men might be reporting intercourse with the same girl.”
Jews (16 percent) and Catholics (19 percent) had lower virginity rates than Protestants (27 percent), but the authors cautioned against a religious interpretation. Many of the Jews and Catholics, they explained, retained “a recent heritage from Latin and Slavic countries” and were quite understandably adopting some American customs less eagerly than others. Perhaps for related reasons, the virginity rate decreased among poorer men and those with less education. Only 12 percent of grade-school dropouts were virgins, compared with 32 percent of college men.
At the same time as Hohman and Schaffner’s study was published, a group of Army medical officers reported their experiences in dealing with the vexing problem of homosexuality among recruits. “To screen out this undesirable soldier-material,” Newsweek said, “psychiatrists in induction-station interviews tried to detect them (1) by their effeminate looks or behavior and (2) by repeating certain words from the homosexual vocabulary and watching for signs of recognition.” But these methods were not completely effective in excluding “inverts”; neither were urine tests for female hormones. Moreover, “frequently, a latent homosexual, who had no knowledge of his predilection, was inducted into the service, only to develop alarming symptoms in camp and on the battlefield.”
Homosexuals who managed to slip past suspicious recruiters, or those whose passions were awakened by barracks life, made important contributions to the war effort despite their “abnormality.” They scored higher in intelligence than the average recruit, and “in spite of nervous, unstable, and often hysterical temperaments, they performed admirably as office workers. Many tried to be good soldiers.”
Still, the Army’s review convinced it of the need for what Newsweek called a “stiff new policy.” Instead of the wartime “blue” discharge, which was neither honorable nor dishonorable, soldiers found to be homosexual would be given an “undesirable” discharge, even if they had not committed any specific offense. But the Army could be lenient when circumstances warranted. To show its appreciation of those homosexuals who had lived through artillery fire, land mines, malaria, and C rations to subdue the Axis despite being “neuropsychiatrie cases,” it allowed that “a few of this group with outstanding combat records might receive an honorable discharge.”