Episode 34: The Government Program that Imprisoned “Promiscuous” Women

In the United States, the war against women took a particularly dark and secretive turn in the early 1900s—around the start of World War I. Under a government-sponsored “social hygiene” campaign, to protect newly recruited soldiers, tens of thousands of women were arrested on “suspicion” of having a venereal disease. Sex workers were the prime targets, but any woman who raised an eyebrow could be apprehended. The women were subjected to invasive gynecological examinations. If they tested positive for an STI, they were incarcerated in hospitals, reformatories, and prisons, without any semblance of due process.

Once imprisoned, the women became test subjects—receiving painful injections of mercury and other ineffective treatments. Many were beaten and forcibly sterilized. Most were held indefinitely until they were deemed “cured” or “reformed.” The program persisted for decades, well into the 1950s, and even shades of this discriminatory practice are present today.

Have you ever heard of the American Plan?



It was an absolute pleasure to speak with Scott Stern, author of The Trials of Nina McCall, the first book-length history of the American Plan, and Jeana Jorgensen, a scholar and sex educator who has written extensively, from a feminist angle, on the impacts of the American Plan.


The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women; Stern, Scott W.; Penguin Random House; May 15, 2018.

The American Plan: The U.S. Government’s Forgotten Plan to Lock Up Women and Free the Country from the Scourge of Disease; Stern, Scott W.; Yale University; 2015.

The U.S. Detained ‘Promiscuous’ Women in What One Called a ‘Concentration Camp.’ That Word Choice Matters; Stern, Scott W.; TIME; May 15, 2018.

 The American Plan and World War I; Jorgensen, Jeana; Patheos; January 1, 2019.

The Impact of the American Plan; Jorgensen, Jeana; Patheos; January 1, 2019.

American Social Hygiene Association History and a Forecast; Virginia Commonwealth University, Social Welfare History Project; Retrieved May 2019.

Brief History of Syphilis; Tampa, M; Journal of Medicine and Life; March 25, 2014.

Sexually Transmitted Disease Control in the Armed Forces, Past and Present; Emerson, Lynn A.C.; Military Medicine; 1997.