The year of 1864 brought a new legislation, a temporary change for the government to try and control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases within the armed forces. Registration and examination were demanded of prostitutes, meaning that any suspected prostitute (any women alone outdoors, no matter the reason, were under surveillance by the Metropolitan Police, insistent on finding and submitting prostitutes into examinations) would be took to a male doctor and forced into receiving an internal genital examination. If the woman was to be found to have contracted a disease, they were immediately contained within a secure and locked hospital wing until ‘cured’. Unknown to 99 percent of British Taxpayers, these lock hospitals were funded by their paid taxes. Macpherson commented on the systems on inspections and lock hospitals saying, “restricted in scope, partial in application, and highly discriminatory.” (Hershatter, 1997: Pg 145) On the other hand, refusal of examination would result in the woman being jailed for three months, until the act was first amended in 1869, doubling the punishment.
Autumn 1869, A National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts had just been founded, but like majority of organisations at that time the leadership was solely male. An argument was brought to light because of this stating that since the Contagious Diseases Act disciplined only women, women should be the ones to publicly stand up for the repeal. However, as the subject of which is of a sexual nature, it was embarrassing and taboo for majority of women, causing difficulty in woman wanting and being able to protest the acts publicly. During this period, women were to be ‘decent’ and ‘proper’ and thus shouldn’t have knowledge or discuss about either prostitution or sexually transmitted diseases. Regardless, LNA leader Josephine Butler continued to rally supporters for the campaign, stating that “Is it possible that pure and Christian woman can bear any longer to look on, in silence…? I do not believe they can.” The eight arguments Butler made for the repeal (all of which remained throughout the 14 years of the campaign) in the “The Ladies Appeal and Protest against the Contagious Diseases Acts” started with both the public and press had to discuss any proposed legislation before the government decide to make it official. The second and third highlighted the abundant power the police held over who were suspected prostitutes, defying the liberty human rights act, “British police officers unlimited authority to arrest any woman or girl who was suspected of being a prostitute” (Hiersche, 2014; Pg 2). Fourth and fifth argued instead of punishing the reasons why prostitution is a widespread problem, it punished the prostitutes when they aren’t the sole reason for the spread of diseases, “they apply restrictions on women which they do not upon men, although both are equally propagators of disease” (Playfair, 1870: Pg 9). Lastly, Butler’s final three arguments made analysed the brutal and inhumane forced examinations, showing immorality to be the cost of attempting to decrease statistics of disease. These examinations were often nicknamed “rape by speculum”, and not all prostitutes had contracted venereal diseases, others possibly infected by different diseases, many of which are harder to identify and diagnose; as well, the examination instruments have high possibility of being previously contaminated thus even infecting other women.
One of LNA first actions in protest to the act was on New Years Day 1870 they published a protest in the Daily News, “signed by 124 ladies, among them Josephine Butler, Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale” (Jordan and Sharp, 2003; Pg 1.) and by March 1870, the LNA proceeded to have individual weekly newspaper by the name of The Shield. Nevertheless, the LNA experienced some rivalry from The Association for the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, a group created back in 1866 for the extension of the acts who stated that the growing rates of prostitution is just a part of society that needed to be tackled. The AE also debated that lock hospitals weren’t as bad as the LNA argued but instead they supplied not just moral treatment but also compassionate support in attempt to reform the prostitute into having more of a ‘proper’ way of life, putting her sinful acts behind her. Finally, the AE also measured the statistics which showed both prostitute and STD numbers decreasing since the act was put in place.
The Social Purity Movement, established by Ellice Hopkins, founded The White Cross Army in 1883 to change male sexual actions, “these organisations urged men to take a purity pledge modelled on the temperance pledge” (Tosh, 2007: Pg 154). Within this pledge the recruited ‘respectable’ working-class men promised to “to treat all women with respect, and endeavour to protect them from wrong and degradation” (Bartley, 2012: Pg 184). The movement aimed to put an end to the continuous sexual double standards within society, giving an equal to both the men and women instead of blaming women for the sexual immorality. Yet, many saw the Purity Movement as a ‘sexual restraint’, aiming for chastity for all instead of sexual freedom thus confirming women to be the desired asexual and anti-sex that society desired while isolating prostitutes from the working-class communities. In addition, it played on the lingering unease surrounding the female sexuality, heightening the concern around the female sexual autonomy while reinforcing the stereotypical female dependency and purity.
W.T. Stead is another notable person within the campaign against the acts when during 1885 in the Pall Mall Gazette he publishes and investigates child prostitution and trafficking thus creating a white slavery scandal. In order to prove how easy it was to sell young girls, he arranged a purchase of thirteen year old girl, Eliza Armstrong, from her mother where “though never physically harmed, Eliza was nonetheless put through the motions of what a real child victim would have had to experience, including being “certified” a virgin by an abortionist midwife and being taken to a brothel where she was drugged with chloroform” (Mulpetre, 2012) before Armstrong was then sent over to the Salvation Army in France. Her mother, who accused Stead and his accomplices of abduction and indecent assault which thus began the start of two length trials, ending with Stead being imprisoned. The scandal produced a public outcry against the sexual exploitation of poor girls forcing the Government to construct the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 which raised the ages of consent from 13 to 16, due to the idea that “before full maturity – physical and mental – girls were thought to need protection not only from men, but also from their own new and disorderly sexual feelings” (Bates, 2015). Furthermore, the scandal brought about the formation of The National Vigilance Society “for the enforcement and improvement of the laws for the repression of criminal vice and public immorality” (BBC History Magazine, 2015: Pg 152). Led by a selection of existing social purity activists, they began their work across the country to ensure that the Criminal Law Amendment was being carried out.
In conclusion, The Contagious Diseases Act ignited a debated throughout Britain in which created a catalyst of campaigns for the repeal of the acts thus bringing forth questions regarding the female position in hierarchy of society at the time; questioning female sexuality and actions of a controlling government. These same questions are still debated today.