In May 1998 Donald Trump and Howard Stern discussed on the radio the threat of sexually transmitted diseases to promiscuous heterosexual men. Trump agreed with Stern’s suggestion that he might tell a woman, “Look, you’ve got to go take a medical test before I do you.” (Neither man seemed to imagine the possibility that he would take a test himself.) But Trump added that “the problem is that sometimes your own chemicals take over and you can’t wait.” Stern responded, “So you’ll just have straight intercourse with a rubber with them, right?” Trump seemed uneasy with the idea that he would be expected to use a condom: “Well, I don’t know, you know there’s lots of different ways of doing it. It’s a very complicated subject. They say that more people were killed by women in this act than killed in Vietnam, OK?” Later in the interview, he repeated the comparison: “It’s Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful.” Stern assured Trump, “You’re braver than any Vietnam vet because you’re out there screwing a lot of women.” “Getting the Congressional Medal of Honor, in actuality,” said Trump.
This analogy with Vietnam—a war that Trump of course avoided—upset many people when CNN excavated the tapes of the show in October 2016. But there was more going on here than the obvious contempt for women and for the sacrifices and suffering of veterans. The exchanges between these two self-regarding alpha males took the lid off a strange stew of preening and paranoia, of terror and lust, of claims both to exemplary courage and to hypervigilant caution. A great silence surrounded them—the men did not directly discuss HIV or AIDS, which was then the only STD that might kill people. The ostensible vectors of deadly disease were germs, not viruses: Stern introduced the subject by saying to Trump, “You’re as germ paranoid as I am.” An unnamable fear (AIDS) was sublimated into phony military posturing, a misogynistic and nightmarish analogy between women one might “screw” and foreign enemies (the Vietcong and Vietminh), and a wider paranoia about infection from without. All of these would become aspects of Trump’s political persona.
It is not likely that Trump was aware of the literary antecedents of his analogy between military valor and male sexual adventure. In “The Maim’d Debauchee,” first published in 1680 shortly after the death of its author, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, at the age of thirty-three, probably from tertiary syphilis, he compares the scars of venereal disease to battle scars. He imagines himself as “some brave Admiral, in former War.” He is now “by Pox and Wine’s unlucky chance” driven from the battlefield of debauchery to lie “on the dull Shore of lazy temperance.” But he will show his chancres and pustules to new recruits to urge them on:
Nor shall the sight of Honourable Scars,
Which my too forward Valour did procure,
Frighten new Listed Souldiers from the Warrs,
Past joys have more than paid what I endure.
Perhaps what makes this imagined flaunting of sexual war wounds so disturbing to us is that it builds on a metaphor we take for granted. As Susan Sontag pointed out in Aids and Its Metaphors:
Military metaphors have more and more come to infuse all aspects of the description of the medical situation. Disease is seen as an invasion of alien organisms, to which the body responds by its own military operations, such as the mobilizing of immunological “defenses.”
Rochester’s bravado unsettles this basic metaphorical structure by implying that the body cannot in fact repel the invading infection and must instead not merely endure but celebrate its presence. But he also manages a startling reversal of the exemplary significance of venereal diseases. They are supposed to function as a warning against fornication. Here the display of his “Honourable Scars” is not intended to deter a young man from following him into the sexual battlefield—it will, rather, “fire his Blood” in the way the sight of an old soldier’s war wounds would stir the new recruit to emulate his courage.
The idea of the contraction of VD as a kind of male initiation rite is not all that distant from our own times. In March 1904, for example, Oliver St John Gogarty, the poet and medical doctor who is the original of Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, replied to a now lost letter from James Joyce in which Joyce evidently described the symptoms of gonorrhea: “Congratulations that our holy mother has judged you worthy of the stigmata.’’ Less comically but more remarkably, in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Adrian Leverkühn’s pact with the devil involves the voluntary infection of his brain with syphilis in return for twenty-four years of creative genius. Nonetheless, it is not easy for us to understand how, even within the widest bounds of either poetic license or male braggadocio, one man’s syphilitic sores might, as Rochester hopes, stimulate the lust of another. According to Sontag, “Leprosy and syphilis were the first illnesses to be consistently described as repulsive.” It is natural therefore to think of Rochester’s poem as extravagantly perverse.
But in her deeply erudite and richly illuminating study of images of venereal disease in British literature and visual art in the “long eighteenth century” that began with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Noelle Gallagher shows this analogy of sexual risk-taking to military danger to have been a common trope. She cites Richard Ames’s verse diatribe of 1691, “The Female Fire-Ships,” in which Rochester’s image of the infected sexual adventurer as an old admiral is complemented by “a series of naval metaphors that portray men as vulnerable sailors, goods-laden ships, and pirates’ booty, and that vilify prostitutes as predatory vessels or seafaring mercenaries.” Ames’s purpose was monitory rather than defiant, but given the prestige of naval warfare in England, such images might have unintended effects—what gallant Jack Tar would shirk this carnal combat?
Gallagher shows that, far from being shameful, there were “positive associations between venereal disease and male power” created and sustained by “identifying a robust disregard for the dangers of infection as a crucial marker of male courage.” Like Trump, promiscuous men knew it was “very dangerous” out there, but unlike him, they did not want to be seen as careful creatures. Infection was accepted as the “non-negotiable price of male sexual license.” For those who survived it, the consequent war wounds “could be borne with pride and marshalled alongside other signs of age and experience as proof of the bearer’s intrepidity in younger days.”
This insouciance is, perhaps, less mysterious if it is understood as the obverse of terror. By the mid-seventeenth century, syphilis, the French Disease, had been an object of fear in Europe for over two centuries. Albrecht Dürer was in his early twenties when the disease first came to European consciousness, and he wrote in 1506, “Ask [our prior] to pray to God for me that I may be saved, and especially from the French [Disease] because I know nothing of which I am so much afraid, since nearly every man has it; it eats up many people so that they die.”
It must be borne in mind not only that gonorrhea (“clap”) and syphilis (“pox”) were generally understood as two phases of the same infection and that genital scabies (“the itch”) was considered a form of VD, but that other diseases, like consumption, could also be seen as symptoms of it, making potentially fatal sexually transmitted disease seem ubiquitous. “And because the disease was potentially undetectable,” adds Gallagher, “it was also potentially everywhere.” (Gustave Flaubert’s laconic note on the general opinion about syphilis—“Everybody has it, more or less”—is probably even more applicable to the eighteenth century than the nineteenth.)
The dread was physical—the pain and horror of weeping ulcers and the collapsed noses of late-stage syphilis—but also social and religious. Before AIDS was seen as divine or natural retribution for male homosexuality, the pox was a chastisement for heterosexual concupiscence. As one typical medical tract, by the surgeon Peter Lowe, put it in 1596, “For to refraine the filthy lusts of men and women, God hath permitted thys sicknes to rainge among them, as a punishment for sinne.” Conversely, then, the willingness to face down these terrors—indeed to defy God himself—could be seen as the ultimate in audacity. Such defiance of danger is also the definition of military heroism; hence the martial metaphors.
This equation was of course troubling. Venereal diseases have always been associated with military expeditions. The origin myth of syphilis in Europe locates its ground zero at the siege of Naples in 1494–1495, when the hitherto triumphant army of the French king Charles VIII was forced to withdraw because it was ravaged by this new and mysterious disease—“defeated,” as the cultural historian Kevin Siena has put it, “not in the battlefield but in the bordellos, or so the story goes.”
So sexual recklessness could be seen as either a natural companion of military swagger or as a harbinger of military defeat. In William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley, we see the London footguards assembled on the Tottenham Court Road to begin their march north toward Scotland to repel the Jacobite invasion of 1745. It is a wild scene. At right, the notorious brothel-keeper Mother Douglas looks out on it from the King’s Head Tavern, while her employees display themselves from the other windows. On the left, an infected soldier grimaces in pain as he attempts to piss against a wall to which is affixed a flyer advertising the services of Dr. Richard Rock, a well-known VD specialist.
On a simple reading, the picture is a merciless exposure of the English army as a pox-riddled rabble. This certainly seems to be the way George II saw it, and his consequent outrage barred Hogarth from future royal patronage. But the image can also accommodate a more nuanced view: these devil-may-care, anarchic risk-takers, so heedless of their own safety in sex, are exactly the sort you’d want to send against the wild Scots. If they have braved Mother Douglas, Bonnie Prince Charlie will be a piece of cake. Art historians, as Gallagher shows, have indeed read the picture both ways.
Shakespeare had long since explored the explosive potential of this ambivalence. In Henry V, he goes out of his way to give the loyal patrons of the London brothels their place in the glorious military epic of Agincourt. After the battle, one of them, the utterly disreputable English soldier Pistol, tells us directly that his wife Nell has died “of a malady of France,” which is to say, of the pox. He acknowledges that he too is infected but hatches a plan to pass his syphilitic chancres off in England as wounds heroically received in the splendid campaign that has just culminated at Agincourt:
And patches will I get unto these cudgelled scars,
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.
The “cudgelled scars” refer to a beating Pistol has just received but also, in the context of Nell’s death, to the symptoms of their shared infection. In this astonishing scene, Shakespeare turns on its head the whole image of pox scars as war wounds. The play on “Gallia wars” as both debauchery carrying the risk of infection with the French Disease and the royal battles we’ve just seen is breathtaking in its cynicism about the great patriotic triumph. And we are invited to think of Pistol’s future stories about that war, in which he will pass off his patched-over pustules as evidence to back up his lies about his valiant deeds at Agincourt.
Which brings us back, of course, to Donald Trump’s self-awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in “screwing a lot of women” without using condoms in the 1990s. Trump, like the cowardly Pistol, never actually did any fighting, but like his Shakespearean antecedent he can claim to be braver than any real vet, for he has faced the dangers of the bordello and the bedroom. We can see in this the continuity over the centuries of a certain kind of male heterosexual bravado about sexually transmitted diseases. But there is also one great discontinuity: Trump’s presentation of the imagery is much, much more misogynistic. Even Pistol implicitly acknowledges that his poor Nell has died of a disease with which he has infected her. But for Trump, infection is a one-way process—it is women who do it to men. His claim that “more people were killed by women in this act than killed” in a major war would not have passed unchallenged even in early modern Europe.
It’s not that Trump was the first to identify women’s bodies as the sole vectors of disease. Early accounts of the French Disease postulated the existence in Naples of a single alluring prostitute who serviced the French troops. Syphilis began in her body—a putrifying sore at the base of her womb, inflamed by constant sex, infected the penises of the soldiers. (A similar notion of a beautiful and promiscuous Patient Zero, a Canadian airline steward, was popularized as an explanation for the AIDS epidemic in North America by Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On in 1987.) The woman whose alluring surface hides a pox-ridden prostitute is a common image in eighteenth-century art and literature, Corinna—the “pride of Drury Lane” in Jonathan Swift’s “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” who applies plasters to “her shankers, issues, running sores”—being only the most memorably lurid.
Yet such repellent images of the diseased female body were part of a much more complex nexus of fears. On his third voyage, Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, whose ruler is a necromancer who can summon up the dead at will. Gulliver, who wishes to admire the noble lineages of great families, is shocked by what he sees when the lines of their ancestors are paraded before him. He can now descry
who first brought the Pox into a noble House, which hath lineally descended in scrofulous Tumours to their Posterity…. How the Pox under all its Consequences and Denominations had altered every Lineament of an English Countenance, shortened the size of Bodies, unbraced the Nerves, relaxed the Sinews and Muscles, introduced a sallow Complexion, and rendered the Flesh loose and Rancid.
This is the great nightmare of the pox—that syphilis, being hereditable, will be passed on through the ruling families and cause both the physical and the political degeneracy of the nation. And this process of corruption, right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, was understood to be essentially male—the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons and grandsons. As one historian of venerology puts it, “Almost without exception nineteenth-century venerologists believed in the paternal origin of congenital syphilis; it was thought that a father’s ‘tainted’ semen infected an infant at the time of conception.”
This is indeed the backstory of one of the central works of late-nineteenth-century modernism, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, in which Osvald Alving’s doom has been fixed long before his birth by his father’s debaucheries. The play dramatizes male guilt—Osvald’s disease has come not from a female prostitute but from a promiscuous man. As Mary Spongberg wrote in her 1997 study Feminizing Venereal Disease:
The fact that a father could transmit the disease to his innocent children proved a more ghastly idea than that women could generate the disease within themselves. This shifted the impact of blame away from the women and onto men, most especially middle-class men.
This shift was already happening in the eighteenth century. In some ways, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—in which, as Gallagher convincingly argues, “the Shandys…are a degenerating breed, getting smaller, weaker, and sicklier with each passing generation”—is a comic forerunner of Ibsen’s tragedy. Tristram’s own symptoms of late-stage congenital syphilis (including the collapsed nose that was taken to be its infallible sign) have been inherited through the male line. This makes men the primary culprits for the worst consequences of VD. Daniel Defoe, following this logic, went so far as to propose in his 1727 tract Conjugal Lewdness, or Matrimonial Whoredom, that men who infected their wives should be sent to the gallows. Such a wife was the innocent victim of
a debauch’d infected Carkase, who at once despoils her of her self, for so we may justly call it, and communicates to her the worst of all Contagion, a Poison in her Blood, an impure and loathsome Plague…. This is worse than Matrimonial Whoredom, for it is Matrimonial Murther.
Gallagher traces the power of this counterimage of male blame for venereal infection all the way back to the early eighteenth century. This allocation of blame to men is not for a moment feminist. It is embedded in a patriarchal discourse in which the possibility that the wife might have been infected through her own adulterous adventures is unimaginable, and the great anxiety is for the purity of the male line of inheritance. (Gallagher points out the common use of the metaphor of a biological legacy being “entailed,” as if it were a bankrupt estate.) It draws on class hierarchy—one of the nastiest aspects of the whole business is that the sexual incontinence of well-to-do men allows the diseases of working-class women into the bloodlines of their betters. It even relies on an ancient notion of conception in which the woman merely acts as the incubator of the (in this case tainted) male seed. And it ultimately supports, as in Gulliver’s rueful visions, a narrative of racial degeneration that would ramify into anti-Semitic tropes and eugenic theories. Yet it does act to undermine the simple misogynistic story of VD in which, as in Trump’s terms, men are “killed by women.” Men kill women too.
One way to reconcile conventional revulsion at the infected whore with anger at the infective husband was to define the prostitute as essentially nonfemale, and this was indeed a common resort for writers—Corinna, in Swift’s poem, removing the prosthetics and makeup that disguise her true, diseased self, seems almost like a cyborg. But the strength of the acceptance of male guilt could also allow for highly sympathetic portrayals of diseased women. Gallagher makes especially good use of both Hogarth’s 1732 series of prints, A Harlot’s Progress, and Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel Roderick Random. In Hogarth’s prints, the beautiful but gullible young Moll Hackabout comes to London seeking honest work as a seamstress, is lured by a procuress immediately on arrival, and then descends through the series from comfortably kept mistress to common whore to prison, venereal disease, and death. Hogarth withholds direct sympathy for Moll, but he also withholds personal condemnation. Her fate has a tragic inevitability from her first unfortunate encounter in the big city—she is a cog in a ruthless machine of sexual exploitation.
Smollett goes further and gives us a positive portrait of a diseased prostitute who is also a smart and kind woman. Roderick finds that his sick neighbor is the same Miss Williams who had once captured his heart but is now a woman of the town and “dangerously infected.” The two move in together and take care of each other—Roderick is also (less seriously) infected—and Smollett daringly interpolates a chapter in which Miss Williams (she retains this respectful appellation) gets to tell her own story of seduction, abandonment, and poverty in the first person. In her sex work, she is exposed to male “drunkenness, brutality and disease.” She experiences the reality of complete subjection to male power: “How miserable is the condition of a courtezan, whose business is to sooth, suffer and obey, the dictates of rage, insolence and lust.” There is little doubt about where Smollett’s own sympathies lie. Roderick turns around Ames’s image of the infected whore as a fire-ship, defending Miss Williams against a man who uses the term against her: she is “more like a poor galley in distress that has been boarded by a fire-ship such as you.”
Such readings support Gallagher’s argument that “this period’s imaginative conceptions of the relationship between female sexuality and venereal disease were both more nuanced and more complex than a blanket charge of misogyny allows.” It is all the more striking, then, that 250 years after Roderick Random, we have Donald Trump’s brutally unalloyed misogyny.
Yet the analogy between his courage in going “out there screwing a lot of women” and the war in Vietnam does have a kind of logic, and it is one that Trump has weaponized as president. In the way he spoke to Stern, he was expressing in essence a paranoia about foreignness: women, even as you “screw” them, are foreign bodies that might smuggle secret infections into your own pristine frame. Their germs and viruses are illegal immigrants smuggling themselves into a clean and innocent male physique. This is essentially the same threat of biological infection that Trump conjured in a tweet of June 19, 2018: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country.” Infest: the thesaurus suggests as synonyms invade and infiltrate but also riddle, infect, plague. This is where military metaphors, misogyny, and fear of the immigrant meet: “The foreign place of origin of important illnesses,” wrote Sontag, “may be no more remote than a neighboring country. Illness is a species of invasion.”
It has always been thus. “Venereal diseases,” quipped Voltaire, “are like the fine arts—it is pointless to ask who invented them.” But that has never stopped anyone from knowing that they always come from the same place: elsewhere. Gallagher quotes the surgeon Edward Dunn writing on VD in 1724: “To speak the Truth, there is no Nation, that does not disown it, and which does not reject the Shame of having given Rise to such a Monster.” Genital scabies was, to the English, “Scotch itch,” and Scotland was “Itch-land.” The pox was the Spanish or Neapolitan Disease to the French; the French Disease to the Spanish, English, and Germans; the Polish Disease to the Russians; the Portuguese Disease to the Japanese. Captain Cook was chagrined to learn that it was called the British Disease in Tahiti as, in so many words, it was in Ireland: in Ulysses the Citizen, a rabid Irish nationalist, mocks Leopold Bloom’s reference to British civilization: “Their syphilisation you mean.”
Most European commentary eventually resolved these contradictions by blaming the indigenous people of South America who had allegedly infected European explorers. Contamination, it could be agreed, came from the hot climes of what is now Latin America and the lax morals of their dark-skinned peoples. In the mind of the US president, it still does.