Sex and war and the Dutch army – ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’
War and sex have a lot to do with each other. The idea that soldiers have a high sex drive is nothing new. And yet, no-one talks about it.
Despite this apparent taboo, the Dutch National War and Resistance Museum in Overloon has opened an exhibition called Mars and Eros. One display shows credit notes for brothel visits - back in World War II, German soldiers could visit prostitutes for free.
Museum director Erik van den Dungen: “You were expected to be reasonably quick about reaching a climax. Then, you’d have to report to the field hospital to be tested for a sexually transmitted disease. Despite using a condom, which was compulsory, you might still have caught something - not a good idea for a frontline soldier.”
But that was then. What about now? How, for example, were things organised for Dutch soldiers who, until recently, were serving with NATO in Afghanistan? There is no display about that. It’s still not discussed.
In fact, the exhibition doesn't cover anything about sex and modern soldiers at all. It was a conscious decision, says Van den Dungen, taken so as not to upset anyone. The museum doesn't want to put soldiers just back from serving abroad in an uncomfortable position; a position that would probably be even more uncomfortable for their partners.
The chairman of the solider's union (AMFP), Wim van den Burg, is clear about the military's current position on the issue: “At the moment, absolutely nothing is being provided, not even during service abroad. This is in stark contrast with the situation in the past, when the army organised brothels.”
He explains that there are also no guidelines about sex in the army. It’s along the lines of 'don’t ask, don’t tell'. The only rules seems to be that it’s 'not done' to have sexual relations with someone under your command.
WWII: German Camp brothel in Gusen
“In Bosnia, we saw relationships with members of the local population. Some long-term relationships were formed.”
The nature of soldiers' work appears to account for their relatively high sex drive compared with people in other jobs. Soldiers are often young people away from home for long periods, during which they are under great strain. Major Niels Roelen experienced this himself while serving in Afghanistan.
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“After being involved in heavy fighting, I had an enormous urge, a really strong sex drive directly afterwards.”
He says he was later told by a psychologist that the fear of death causes the body to produce huge amounts of testosterone, causing a strong erotic side-effect.
This sexual arousal caused by war may be partly responsible for the fact that women throughout the world have suffered rape at the hands of soldiers. Van den Dungen says it's not uncommon, even today.
“Soldiers entering a conquered city will celebrate their victory in a brutal way. Women are most often the victims of this. You see this nowadays in the reports from Sudan or Congo. Rape was the order of the day there.”
In 2006, former government minister Annemarie Jorritsma courted controversy by suggesting that prostitutes should be sent to Dutch troops on a mission in Afghanistan. “That would remove much of soldiers’ sexual tension,” she said. “What’s more, our boys would then keep away from their female colleagues.” Politicians, unions and even the prostitutes’ organisation were savage in their criticism of her proposal.
Major Roelen thinks there’s something to be said for Jorritsma’s idea. However, he is worried that it might send the wrong message to the public – not just in the Netherlands, but also in Afghanistan.