Everyone knows that prostitution is immoral by any – conservative or modern – moral standards. Nevertheless, everyone knows too that the accountability of the action does not reside to one party alone. Further, women must never be discriminated by any law, government or groups in the attempt to promote morality in the society. These were clearly violated when the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in 1864, 1866 and 1869. These Acts saw how contagious women’s diseases led to the passing of these acts as well as the violation of their human rights.
A View to the Background of the Acts
The British army and navy then were prohibited to marry. This led to two major problems: about a third of the force contacted venereal disease and many resorted to homosexual practices. The problem could have been simply solved by permitting them to get married; this was later adopted but not at the height of the problem.
There were other preconceived solutions such as subjecting the British soldiers and sailors to regular medical checkups, but that was thought to be demoralizing that is not good in keeping the force in high morale. The other options available were regarded as affronts to the Victorian morality and were never given a second thought such as allowing homosexual practices, licensing medically supervised brothels, and use of condoms.
Rather, the law was used to preserve the health of the British armed forces at the expense of the women suspected to be suffering from the “contagious women’s diseases.”
The Contagious Acts
As early as 1864, the British Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Act to protect the enlisted men of the British army and navy from sexually transmitted diseases that were “brought to them” by prostitutes. This came at the height of venereal disease infection when roughly a third of the force was afflicted with the disease. The act was supposed to be a fine political example of how the law can be used to contain a problem and to protect the members of the armed forces. Instead, it incited a formidable Victorian feminist movement to rise and oppose the Act that was reinforced by the succeeding amendment in the years 1866 and 1869.
This law empowered the police to arrest prostitutes and those suspected to be prostitutes for compulsory checkups for venereal disease. The movement was galvanized when the working- and the middle-class women joined forces for the repeal of the Acts. This was prompted by the indiscriminate arrests and locking up in the hospitals of the diseased women until cured and the arrest of women who were not prostitutes, but suffered the humiliating medical examination while in police custody.
The Women’s Action against the Violation
The Acts and the succeeding indiscriminate arrests and confinement affronted early strong women, led by Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenhome. They were also outraged by the fact that the legislation lack any sanction for the males and that the women were the sole party blamed in the extensive spread of the contagious diseases. In other words, venereal disease and such were unfairly regarded as contagious women’s diseases at that time.
The campaign against this law led to the organizing of the Ladies’ Association against the Contagious Diseases Act. The two women toured the country openly declaring disdain through their speeches. Many were shocked at their apparent bravado especially talking about sex publicly, but they got the attention of both men and women. Wrapped up in a norm of condescension, there were antagonists. However, those who admire courage and believe in equality despite unpopularity supported them all the way to their victory 20 years later in 1886.
Looking back, one wonders how such atrocity degraded the human rights of women. For venereal disease and such to be regarded as solely contagious women’s diseases was not only grossly unfair, it was also ineffectually incorrect. Thanks to the valor of women like Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenhome, the Contagious Acts were repealed.