The American Plan was a federal program that initially deputized local law enforcement to detain and test any woman suspected of promiscuity near military bases to protect enlisted men from venereal disease. The program began in 1917 with the United States’ involvement in World War I, but spread nationally as municipalities copied the language to enforce locally. The American Plan operated under the assumption that women were vectors of disease who were responsible for transmitting infections to men. These laws were enforced in some areas into the 1970s.
Women, especially those engaged in sex work, were often portrayed as temptresses and blamed for the perceived degradation of society. This stigmatization of women fueled the program’s implementation and perpetuated harmful stereotypes. Under the American Plan, women suspected of engaging in prostitution or being “promiscuous” or “immoral” were subject to forced medical examinations and confinement in “reformatories” or detention centers. These facilities, often resembling prisons, were designed to isolate and “rehabilitate” women until they satisfied their captor’s expectations of chastity.
The devastating impact of the American Plan on women’s lives cannot be overstated. Many women were unjustly targeted based on rumors or malicious accusations, some women were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suspected women were subjected to invasive medical procedures and indefinite periods of confinement. Many women faced lifelong stigma as a result of their public shaming. Some women were actually infected with venereal disease when doctors did not clean speculums in between forced exams.
In addition to its egregious human rights violations, the American Plan failed to effectively control sexually transmitted infections. The focus on targeting women obscured the reality that sexually transmitted infections are transmitted through consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters, regardless of gender. With the overwhelming majority of STIs coming, not from old pros who worked in brothels, but from unpaid relationships soldiers engaged in on leave. By neglecting to address the broader issue of public health and education, the program fell short of its intended goals.
In the broader context of history, the American Plan reflects a dark chapter in the nation’s approach to public health and sexuality. The program’s enforcement was driven by fear and ignorance rather than evidence-based policies and a genuine concern for public health.
This chapter of our history serves as a reminder of the importance of approaching public health initiatives with compassion, scientific rigor, and respect for individual rights. By challenging harmful stereotypes and advocating for human rights and social justice, we can work towards a society that respects and values the dignity and rights of all individuals, regardless of their occupation or circumstances. Together, we can create a future where compassion, understanding, and evidence-based policies guide our approach to public health and social issues.
The Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.
Stern, Scott W. The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women. Boston, Beacon Press, 2018.
The main source for this episode, Scott Stern’s The Trials of Nina McCall, tells the story of the American Plan through the lens of Nina McCall’s life. Like hundreds of other women, Nina was unfairly imprisoned without due-process on suspicion of having a sexually transmitted disease. Stern details the injustices and indignities suffered by Nina and women like her, as well as the way they fought back. A crucial source for listeners wanting to learn more about the topic of this episode, Stern’s book humanizes and reifies the brutality of the American Plan, grounding it in questions about prisons, women’s rights, and state power.
Bristow, Nancy K. Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War. New York: NYU Press, 1996.
Bristow’s Making Men Moral investigates the fears and prejudices that underpinned government efforts to create model soldiers and citizens who would spread middle-class, white, Christian values. Bristow uses letters and photographs to recreate the tensions of the Great War period which produced the American Plan, and the zeitgeist that sent it spiraling far beyond its original mandate.
Antoniazzi, Barbara. The Wayward Woman: Progressivism, Prostitution, and Performance in the United States, 1888-1917. Lanham, Maryland: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014.
In The Wayward Woman, Barbara Antoniazzi argues that the Progressive Era was defined by the tension between the rise of female emancipation and the panic over sexual enslavement. Using contemporary media, Antoniazzi creates the character of the “wayward woman,” a categorization that embodies the push and pull of the period. Chapter Five, “Staging Remedies: Doctors, Patients, and the American Plan,” will be of particular interests to listeners of this episode. Through an examination of the play “The Knife,” Antoniazzi deftly reconstructs the social neo-Darwinism and new medical logic which underpinned the American Plan.
Brandt, Allan. No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
No Magic Bullet by Allan Brandt is an excellent source for listeners wanting more information about governmental and societal responses to diseases. Brandt uses case studies of syphilis, herpes and HIV to argue that negative social perceptions of disease impede the development of effective treatments and policies. He recounts the various public health responses to such epidemics, including premarital blood-tests and the mass imprisonment of the American plan, grounding these policies in American perceptions of race, sex, and class.
Pivar, David J. Purity and Hygiene: Women, Prostitution, and the “American Plan,” 1900-1930. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
In Purity and Hygiene, David J. Pivar examines the aims of American feminism, eugenics, public health, and Progressive reforms, with regard to prostitution and the spread of venereal disease. He determines that policies implemented between 1900 and 1920 led to an increase in disease spread, rather than the decrease seen in Europe in the same period. Pivar focuses on the power and goals of social movements, building upon the theories of his earlier work, Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900. Purity and Hygiene is a useful source for listeners seeking a deeper understanding of the social movements and organizations that drove anti-sex work policy in the early 20th century.
Oldenburg, Kristina. “All the Prostitutes May Be Made Subject to Supervision and the Spread of Disease Infinitely Reduced’: Implications of Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet and William Acton’s Regulatory Proposals.” MA Thesis., Simon Fraser University, 2006. Access link.
This dissertation by Kristina Oldenburg is just one option for readers seeking a detailed examination of primary sources relating to the control of sex and sexually transmitted diseases. Oldenburg uses regulatory proposals from the 1800s to argue that, though policymakers expressed concern for prostitutes, they sought to control sex workers in order to protect male clients and military budgets, not workers. She also examines the commodity and research perspectives that led doctors and policymakers to mistreat women and sex workers.