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From The Men behind the Girl behind the Man behind the Gun,which appeared in the May 2022 edition of the Journal of the History of Sexuality.

In his 1919 book Morals and Morale, Luther H. Gulick stressed “the relation of ‘winning the war’ to sex morals.” Gulick asserted that sexual continence was a precondition for military efficiency, and suggested that the military learn from sports, where, “during training for the contest no dissipation [meaning ejaculation] is to be tolerated.” This belief posited that sperm was a “vital fluid” and that its supply must be preserved within what G. J. Barker-Benfield has called a “spermatic economy.” All of the morale theorists shared this “hydraulic” understanding of male sexuality, in which the raw ingredients of willpower—“energy” and “vigor”—could be conserved or spent through ejaculation.

The Commision on Training Camp Activities chairman, Raymond B. Fosdick, clearly preferred a less traditional approach to sexual control. In a November 1918 address, Fosdick told the story of a young marine who had been killed in combat. In the soldier’s pocket “was a love letter, signed simply Helen.” It was for her, he imagined, that this soldier had charged the German machine gun nest where he was ultimately “snuffed out.” The idea that women could serve as men’s motivators explains why the CTCA continually sought to bring the young soldiers into contact with women—provided that these women were sexually self-restrained. Female canteen workers were selected on the bases of their looks and their apparent ability to control themselves. In pursuit of a stimulating but not dissipating feminine presence, the YMCA opted to hire women in their early thirties: they would be young enough to allure but old enough to keep their composure in the face of so-called “khaki fever.” Fosdick proudly claimed that these women were “in no small degree responsible for the unflagging devotion and the inexhaustible patience with which our troops carried forward their high enterprise.”

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February 2023

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