Medicine, Morality and Political Culture: Legislation on Venereal Disease in Five Northern European Countries, C.1870-1995

By de Vries, Petra | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, July 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Medicine, Morality and Political Culture: Legislation on Venereal Disease in Five Northern European Countries, C.1870-1995


de Vries, Petra, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Medicine, Morality and Political Culture: Legislation on Venereal Disease in Five Northern European Countries, c.1870-1995. By Ida Blom Nordic Academic Press. 192pp, Pounds 26.95. ISBN 9789185509737. Published 1 March 2012

Catching venereal disease is different from catching a cold. It's nastier, more intimate, raises suspicions, and makes you wonder why you were so stupid not to have safe sex, or why you had sex at all. Not surprisingly, the loaded meaning of VD has haunted European society for ages. Who infected whom was not simply a medical but also - at least for the past 150 years - a political question. An oversimplified but nevertheless true answer to this question has been, until fairly recently, that women infect men. The roots of this view are found in 19th-century approaches to combating VD by controlling prostitution, most often through a system of licensed brothels and compulsory medical checkups and treatment. "Syphilis" (or what was diagnosed as such) was seen as a gendered sickness, transmitted by "loose" women from the lower classes whose civil liberties were trampled by lock-up hospitals, police control and forced examinations, all in order to protect male sexual needs.

The regulation of prostitution has been intensively studied by historians; increasingly, too, there have been studies that look beyond the "standard" British history focusing on Josephine Butler's famous crusade against the Contagious Diseases Acts. Ida Blom contributes to this debate, and to the history of VD, by tracing the development of anti-VD policies in three Scandinavian countries - Sweden, Denmark and Norway - including the HIV/Aids crises of the late 20th century. She shows how, by and large and to different degrees, the three countries represent a Scandinavian Sonderweg (special case) compared on the one hand with the traditional liberal approaches that emerged in the UK following the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and on the other hand with the controlling, coercive strategies of Germany. She argues that VD legislation foreshadowed and mirrored the three main categories of (emerging) welfare states - liberal, conservative-corporate and social democrat. In the Scandinavian social democracies, the welfare state was your friend, downgrading social hierarchies, whereas in Germany it upheld gender and social differences, and had to be obeyed by its citizens. …

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