Contagious Disease: The Rise and Fall of Nineteenth-Century British Prostitution Regulation
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The Contagious Diseases Acts were a series of legislation passed by British Parliament during the later half of the nineteenth-century. The acts were intended to control the high rates of venereal disease, namely syphilis and gonorrhea, within the armed forces through the sanitary regulation of prostitutes. The acts designated nineteen military districts within England and Ireland to be subject to regulation. Any woman suspected of practicing prostitution with a district subject to regulation could be identified by a policeman and given a notice to register. Unless the woman could successfully disprove the allegations she would be ordered to register as a common prostitute and undergo periodic medical examinations to check for venereal disease. If found to be diseased, she would be detained for treatment and moral education at a certified lock hospital. However, the Contagious Diseases Acts failed as both moral and sanitary regulation due to three structural flaws within the legislation. One, the acts were based upon misguided assumptions about the true nature of the prostitute as a person and prostitution as a business. Two, the acts were contingent upon an unrealistic level of bureaucratic coordination and an incorrect assumption that the medical resources necessary to carry out such legislation were available. And three, the acts conflicted with the beliefs and values of a significant portion of the British people, as demonstrated by the success of the campaign to repeal the acts. The repeal campaign holds historical significance for the unprecedented number of women who took part as volunteers and held leadership roles within the various repeal organizations. The campaign gave the women’s movement a platform from which to speak about important issues such as gender equality and treatment of the poor.