By Fay Marsden
‘The People at No. 19’ (1949) is a melodramatic film created by the Ministry of Health and the Central Council of Health Education, which aimed to educate the public about available treatments for syphilis (VD). It tells the story of a young married couple – Joan and Ken – who have recently discovered that Joan is pregnant. Joan returns from the doctor looking despondent, finally admitting that she has syphilis. It soon transpires that Joan had engaged in casual sex whilst Ken was away at war. In the ensuing argument, the public learns that syphilis is easily treatable with frequent trips to the doctor and that Joan will still have a healthy baby. The film ends by hinting at the couple’s reconciliation. The film was part of a series of measures undertaken by the Ministry of Health following a peak of VD infections in 1946 (Hall 2001, 132). The goal was to inform the public about treatment and to dispel the myth that only sex workers spread syphilis (Hall 1999, 215-216). However, viewing the film through a lens of the sexual double standard shows that it nevertheless represents female sexuality as dangerous and polluting, and equates the spread of syphilis with sex workers and ‘good-time girls’.
In his seminal article on the subject, Keith Thomas describes the sexual double standard as the longstanding perception of ‘unchastity’ or casual sex being ‘a matter of the utmost gravity’ for women, whilst being at most a ‘mild and pardonable offense’ for men (Thomas 1959, 195). It explains why women who engage in casual sex are labelled as ‘whores’ and receive a damaged reputation, while men who engage in the same behaviour receive little to no backlash (Panteá, Braun & Rowney 2017, 545). When thinking specifically about the history of VD, this double standard is visible when examining perceptions about the disease, as well as responses to it. Female sexuality – particularly that of sex workers – has long been blamed for spreading disease, with men presented as victims. For example, the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s allowed police to detain suspected prostitutes and subject them to forced medical examinations and imprisonment until clear of syphilis (Davis 2011, 512). These degrading acts policed unacceptable female sexuality and pathologized women’s bodies, while their male customers received no similar punishment.
The deep-seated connection between female sexuality and VD continued well into the twentieth century, particularly during the Second World War, when the rising number of venereal infections compounded fears about national health, hygiene and manpower (Davis 2011, 512). By this time, not only were professional prostitutes associated with VD, but also the ‘good-time girl’ or ‘amateur prostitute’ – women who enjoyed casual sex for no commercial gain (Davis 2011, 512). Meanwhile, an onslaught of wartime propaganda warned men against ‘easy’ women, presenting men once more as victims of female sexuality. It is against this backdrop of heightened fear of female sexuality and rising venereal infections that ‘The People at No. 19’ was created.
The intention of ‘The People at No. 19’ to educate the public and minimise the stigma surrounding syphilis is undermined by the film’s format. B. Crowther describes such films as melodramatic ‘moral tales’ – where vital information is mixed with moral instruction (Crowther 2009, 126). Arguably, educating the public about syphilis with a tense and sometimes violent film (both Joan and Ken brandish a breadknife at various moments) ensures that it continues to be perceived as a grave and corrupting disease, further increasing its stigma. Additionally, presenting this story as a ‘moral tale’ also ensures that sufferers are seen as either ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ – and in this case, the film continues to perpetuate the sexual double standard by laying the blame for the spread of syphilis firmly at the door of women.
The subtle winks and nods to the audience about Joan and her friend Doris would easily be interpreted by an audience which already associates syphilis with ‘amateur prostitutes’ as confirmation of this stereotype. As the film unfolds and Ken realises that Joan had an affair, he also realises that it must have occurred whilst Joan was friends with Doris, a woman with a poor sexual reputation. He even hints that Doris is now a sex worker, slyly stating that he had recently seen her “Walking… Just walking up and down as far as I could see” (9:21). This is of course a coded hint that Doris is now soliciting men for sex, walking the streets to find customers.
Doris is not alone in being associated with sex work, as Joan’s own behaviour is also reminiscent of stereotypes of unacceptable female sexuality. Joan finally admits that whilst drinking with Doris, she had met a group of men and had sex with one of them. As she forlornly asks, “How could it’ve happened to me?” (12:00), she is berated by Ken who asks, “What do you think you are, eh? Somebody too high class to meet up with a common germ? But not too high class to pick up with any Tom, Dick or Harry?!” (12:06). The implication of this comment is clear: while technically anybody can ‘meet up with a common germ’, women engaging in ‘lower class’ promiscuity are particularly to blame for the spread of VD. While it is implied that Ken also had an affair (11:00), it is Joan’s sexuality and friendship with a prostitute that gives her the reputation of the dangerous ‘good-time girl’ so warned against during the wartime propaganda campaign.
Ultimately, ‘The People at No. 19’ perpetuates the sexual double standard by presenting female sexuality as responsible for the spread of syphilis. With subtle references to Doris’ sex work and Joan’s drunken promiscuity (so typical of the infamous ‘good-time girl’), the film continues the historical tradition of representing male sexuality as healthy yet susceptible to being corrupted by unacceptably sexual women, swarming with disease and death.
‘The People at No. 19’ (1949). The Ministry of Health and Central Council of Health Education. <https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b1675802x#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0> [accessed 9.02.2021]
Crowther, B. ‘The Growth of British Sex Education Films: Negotiating What We Shouldn’t Know.’ Medical Humanities 35 (2009): 126-127.
Davis, Gayle. ‘Health and Sexuality.’ In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine, edited by Mark Jackson, 503-523. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Farvid, Panteá; Braun, Virginia; Rowney, Casey. ‘“No girl wants to be called a slut!”: Women, Heterosexual Casual Sex and the Sexual Double Standard.’ Journal of Gender Studies 26 (2017): 544-560.
Hall, Lesley A. ‘Venereal Diseases and Society in Britain, From the Contagious Diseases Acts to the National Health Service.’ In Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society Since 1870, edited by Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall, 120-136. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.
Hall, Lesley A. ‘War always brings it on’: War, STDs, The Military, and the Civilian Population in Britain, 1850-1950.’ In Medicine and Modern Warfare, edited by Roger Cooter, Mark Harrison and Steve Sturdy, 205-223. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.
Jolin, Annette. ‘On the Backs of Working Prostitutes: Feminist Theory and Prostitution Policy.’ Crime & Delinquency 40 (1994): 69-83.
Thomas, Keith. ‘The Double Standard.’ Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959): 195-216.