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.
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