The Contagious Diseases Acts: an early feminist cause

Words: Eden James


In the 18th and 19th centuries, politicians felt that prostitution was becoming an issue in England. By the late 1830s it was estimated that there were 80,000 sex workers operating in London alone – but since sex work was (and is) unregulated, it was impossible to get an accurate number.

Soldiers and sailors returning from abroad made reliable customers, so sex workers were often found in port towns. Booming trade combined with a lack of contraception meant high cases of sexually-transmitted diseases, particularly syphilis and gonorrhoea. The government feared that this could have an impact on the strength and health of their army and navy, and as a result, Parliament passed Britain’s controversial Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864, 1866 and 1869. The Acts condemned sex workers for passing on diseases, but didn’t punish the soldiers and sailors for their part in the spread.

They were introduced in certain military stations, garrisons and seaports, and gave police in those areas power to arrest any woman they believed to be a sex worker. The woman would be put before a magistrate who would, if he agreed with the police’s assessment, force her to undergo an invasive medical examination. If she had a disease, she could be sent to a lock-hospital (the term given to the hospitals used to treat sexually-transmitted diseases) to recover for three months or more – and in the meantime, men would be moving around, passing these infections on to other women who would then suffer the same fate.

This disparity reflected the obvious sexism of the time. Women who undertook sex work were condemned as ‘fallen’, while it was common for men to engage their services – an equality in many ways continued by conversations around sex work today.

But the biggest difference between the providers and consumers of Victorian sex work was class. Men of all classes would engage sex workers, while the workers themselves were often – although not always – poor. The rich men passing Acts in Westminster inhabited an entirely different world to that of the women they were legislating against, despite many of them likely having been clients at one point or another. 

But the prejudices of the time didn’t prevent strong opposition being raised against the Acts. 

There were multiple reasons for opposition, so the campaign drew attention from diverse sources. Some acknowledged that the laws were sexist and infringed women’s basic liberties by forcing them to undertake a demeaning examination while allowing men to walk free. For many, the Acts were a catalyst in the realisation of the suffering inflicted by a patriarchal society. It wasn’t only women who opposed on this count: John Stuart Mill famously argued that the government had no right in singling out one group of people affected by a disease.

Others opposed the Acts on the basis that they thought they sought to protect sex workers and their clients, and therefore condoned prostitution: unsurprisingly, Christian Victorian moralism frowned on sex work. The women affected by the Acts were perceived by many as victims – not only of the legislators, but of a society that had few paid work options for women, and, as the activists believed, forced them into sex work. Reputable doctors also opposed the Acts on the basis that they didn’t succeed in reducing cases of sexually-transmitted disease among army and navy personnel. 

The opposition to the acts was segregated by sex. The National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act was made up of businessmen, lawyers, clergymen and MPs, while the separate Ladies’ National Association included many women who became well-known in the later suffrage struggle – most notably Josephine Butler. Topics of sex and politics simply could not be discussed by these well-to-do people in a mixed-sex space. 

The Ladies’ Association used newspapers for publicity. The Daily News published a statement they had sponsored against the Acts, signed by 218 people: Josephine Butler claimed that this piece, named the ‘Women’s Protest’, caused a Member of the House of Commons to tell her ‘your manifesto has shaken us very badly.’ Butler made a speech in Birmingham on 10th March 1870 which was summarised by the Times, and later that month, the paper published a list of the names of men and women opposed to the acts. 

It wasn’t only the wealthy who took part in the campaigns. In 1872, a delegation of working-class men met with the Home Secretary to urge him to speak out for the Acts to be repealed. The Acts, the men observed, threatened their friends and families because they meant any working-class woman walking the streets at night could be arrested as a sex worker.  

Popular petitions presented to Parliament were also a central tactic of the campaign. According to the Select Committee on Petitions of the House of Commons in 1882, there were 10,315 petitions on the topic presented between 1870 and 1881.

In 1883, the Acts were amended to remove the obligatory periodical medical examinations. The opposition was finally successful when, in 1886, the Acts were repealed. 

The success was a landmark in the fight for the rights of women and showed changing attitudes towards their status in society and in law. Earlier successes on issues of education contributed to the repeal of the Acts and demonstrated that the fledgling women’s movement was growing and tackling more controversial subjects. 

Modern feminists often exclude sex workers from their activism, believing their work to be detrimental to the broader aims of women’s liberation. Because of that, it’s worth remembering that this early feminist success was – although influenced by Victorian morality for some – in many ways achieved in solidarity with sex workers. The abuse the workers suffered at the hands of the authorities was not separate from the abuse they suffered as women: the two were, and continue to be, interconnected. 

learn more

  • BOOK: Josephine Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir – Josephine Butler
  • PODCAST: The Morbid Curiosity Podcast – ep. 52: ‘The Contagious Diseases Acts’
  • CAMPAIGN: Why sex work should be decriminalised – Human Rights Watch

Eden James is a third-year history student. She writes about her university experience on her blog, which you can follow on Instagram.