The British women convicted of infecting WWI troops with STDs

Logan Nye
Jun 15, 2023 6:52 AM PDT
3 minute read
world war i std regulation 40d


The United Kingdom’s Defense of the Realm Act 1914 was originally a small, simple law. Then it got, um, let’s say larger.

The United Kingdom's Defense of the Realm Act 1914 was originally a small, simple law. It just banned people from leaking information to the Central Powers. Then it got, um, let's say larger. It eventually banned "bonfires, whistling in the street, and flying kites!"

Oh, and screwing British service members if you have venereal disease, even if you didn't know you had it.

Which was very uncomfortable for the women who were very, very publicly prosecuted under the relevant section of the law, Regulation 40D.

The harlots and their having sex

But it turns out that some people still wanted to do things like fly kites, whistle and have dirty sex with fit men. The ladies caught up in this insanity had "khaki fever."

Basically, a lot of women liked to have sex, even if they had to keep it a secret from the Church of England. And a lot of the married ones watched their husbands march away. And then parades of men in khakis came marching through their little villages and towns.

And they had sex. A lot. With the men.

Which might've been mostly fine, except for the Church of England. But it turned out that those service members weren't super into condoms. (German ones were, for what it's worth.) So, when the service members inevitably caught a venereal disease, they would name whichever woman they most recently had sex with.

Hand-drawn Christmas Menu from an unidentified Officers' Mess, Landrecies, 1918.

Very public prosecutions

The British sailors and soldiers remained anonymous during prosecutions for transmission of venereal disease. But women accused of transmitting the disease had their names dragged in public. They were named in court documents, named in news stories, and even their addresses and occupations were listed.

So there was no question. Did you know Lucy Adams? From Wakefield? Did you know she was married? That doctors determined she does have venereal disease? That she's been convicted? Now she has to do hard labor for six months. And she's losing her separation allowance!

Lucy Adams was real, and all those details of her life came out in the trial and the press. British courts tried, convicted, and sentenced her to six months of hard labor. The courts sentenced about 100 women under the venereal disease section of the Defense of the Realm Act. Nearly all of them received the maximum sentence of six months of hard labor.

That may have included some element of mercy since at least there were six months between the end of their public trial and their return to the likely judgmental stares of the town.

The end of Regulation 40D

Luckily for British women, most of the medical establishment and women's rights groups pointed out the stupidity of prosecuting women for having sex but not British troops. After all, it takes two to tango. And the government only cared when the troops took part.

And the regulation only took effect late in the war, starting in March 1918. Since America joined the war in April 1917, the German's days were numbered anyway. (This is partially a joke, but also, the war was in a stalemate before America showed up with 4.8 service members, lots of industrial might, and shotguns.)

After the war ended on November 11, 1918, the Defense of the Realm Act soon ended.

One of the most prominent writers on Regulation 40D and its impact on women is Laura Lammasniemi, and her paper Regulation 40D: punishing promiscuity on the home front during the First World War is available online.


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