Often referred to as the “oldest profession on earth,” prostitution has been a mainstay in and around military encampments since biblical times. Today the act of trading sex for money remains a seedy yet implicit part of the social interaction between many of the world’s occupying troops and the regions in which they inhabit. As many of these armies are often located in third-world countries or destructive war zones, the economically challenged and impoverished civilians that surround them are left with few alternatives for generating income. Out of desperation many women turn to selling their bodies to locally stationed soldiers and sailors in order to feed their families. As a result, many of these ports and bases are known primarily throughout the military community for their brothels.
American armies are certainly no stranger to eliciting the services of prostitutes. From the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars, through WW2, Vietnam, and even today, U.S. troops always have, and always will, pay for female companionship. When George Washington was a young military man brothels could be found in port cities like New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, S.C.; and Newport, R.I. Prostitution was also ubiquitous in Philadelphia’s “Hell Town,” the prototype for the red light districts that would spread across America in the next century. Philly’s most famous resident Benjamin Franklin himself admitted to hiring his share of strumpets, as he called them.
In The Urban Geography of Commercial Sex: Prostitution in New York City, 1790-1860: The Other Americans: Sexual Variance in the National Past, Dr. Timothy Gilfoyle writes that, “For much of the eighteenth century, ‘courtesans’ promenaded along the Battery after nightfall. On the eve of the Revolution, over 500 ‘ladies of pleasure [kept] lodgings contiguous within the consecrated liberties of St. Paul’s [Chapel].’ A few blocks north, at the entrance to King’s College (later Columbia University), Robert M’Robert claimed that dozens of prostitutes provided ‘a temptation to the youth that have occasion to pass so often that way.”
The introduction of prostitution in American military encampments came during the nation's first fight. Droves of “Lewd women” as they were referred to, flocked to the tents of the Continental Army whether they were in winter quarters or on campaign.
Prostitutes were a worrisome presence to army leadership, particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases. According to the book Belonging to the Army by Holly Ann Mayer, dealing with prostitution was an ongoing problem: “Reports regarding the incidence of venereal disease among male soldiers present a serious matter for a military force too often far below quota in numbers of fighting troops.” Mayer also states that “commanders tried to prevent the spread of social diseases and ... social and military disorder by banning prostitutes from their camps.” No doubt those women who sought follower status in the army avoided acts of prostitution to preserve their place in the Continental community, since they full well knew they would be drummed out of the service if caught.
Despite the health risks some army officers encouraged the presence of prostitutes to help maintain morale. They also turned a blind eye to their troops midnight patronagie of nearby brothels. Often men would sneak out to visit local whore houses after their commanders retired for the night. In New York, this covert act was referred to as visiting “the holy ground,” while in Virginia their seedy destinations were called “disorderly houses.”
Even Valley Forge, the most famous of all Continental Army encampments was not immune to the pleasures of the flesh. Despite the fact that General George Washington himself had set strict standards that prohibited the fraternization between single men and women, local prostitutes were able to infiltrate the camp. (Ironically little has changed as there are currently 22 escort services operating in and around the Valley Forge area.)
Despite their reputation as a more liberal society the French in particular found the wide-spread prostitution in the Colonies quite perplexing. As the French Army arrived in America to assist the fledgling Continental Army from inevitable annihilation, many of them recorded their personal impressions of the locals in their journals. One French officer, Comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur, while in Newport, Rhode Island, wondered why there were so many prostitutes, “in a country so new where vice should not be deeply rooted…” He attributed this epidemic to the peculiar practice of “Bundling”:
Bundling was an activity granted by parents that permitted a young man who declared himself to be in love with a girl to shut himself up in a room with her, lavishing tender caresses upon her in bed, but “stopping short of those reserved for marriage alone; otherwise he would transgress the established laws of bundling.” A truly virtuous woman would resist and conform to the letter of the law, while “those more amply endowed by nature in this respect succumb to this tender sport.” What’s more, a couple could play this game for five or six years or longer before deciding to marry, without committing finally to wedlock. If a girl was seduced and had a child, it was not she who was disgraced, but the man. Respectable houses were closed to him, and he could not marry into one of the better families.
A married woman, he continued, was very faithful to her husband, even though she might have led “a most licentious life” in the years before marriage. Men didn’t seem to mind this; they were not fussy and believed a girl should be free until she was married. If a married woman committed adultery, the husband announced his wife’s “delinquency” and published it in the papers, stating that he would neither pay her bills nor be liable for her debts. Yet even if the situation deteriorated to that stage, adultery was no excuse for dissolving a marriage—the laws did not permit it, and the husbands were quite patient about waiting for their wives to repent. (– Pages 81-82)
Some scholars acknowledge the impact of prostitution on the Colonials during the American Revolution, but also believe the English army was far more frequent in the practice of it. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Duquesne University history professor Holly A. Mayer has developed years of research on the “camp followers” who accompanied the army during the Revolutionary War. She’s the first to acknowledge that there is a long-standing relationship between prostitution and the military. “You can go outside any Army post today, and you’re going to find three things: bars, car dealers and some sort of prostitution service.” But prostitution depends on cash, and by and large, soldiers in the Continental Army were too poor to offer prostitutes much steady employment, she said. “If prostitutes were going to follow any army then, they would have followed the British Army, because they got paid in good, hard currency.”
Regardless of their loyalties many prostitutes followed whatever army was closest in pursuit of their purse. These ladies of the night continued to provide sexual services to both sides of the conflict until the British Army’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Despite the post-war departure of the English, French and Continental troops, prostitution among the local standing military continued intermittently during the War of 1812 and remerged in force at army encampments on both sides during America’s Civil War.