How to walk down a street without getting arrested (and assaulted legally, and nastily)

Josephine Butler and the Contagious Diseases Act


How to walk down a street without getting arrested

(and assaulted legally, and nastily)


Imagine walking down a street, any street, just minding your own business. Along comes a policeman who decides that you might be a prostitute, on the grounds that you are walking in the wrong place, are wearing the wrong kind of hat – or, in some cases, just because he can.

Once arrested, you are tricked, bullied or simply forced to submit to an internal examination to see if you are carrying a contagious sexual disease. And, ladies, if you ever winced at a cervical smear, you can forget a female doctor telling you relax. This was with a male doctor, with your legs held apart by stirrups, strapped down if you fought, and a metal spatula that was thrust into boiling water first.

This was the hated ‘Contagious Diseases’ Act’, first put in place by an act of the UK Parliament in 1864 as a means of controlling prostitution. Hardened prostitutes said they could only face this ‘steel rape’ by getting blind drunk. Women miscarried as a result. Oh, and if you were so not a prostitute as to be a virgin, you were awarded the price of a hot meal. Which presumably means someone somewhere had considered the possibility. Nice.

Initially set up around ports, in 1869, there was a proposal that this should be rolled out across the country, and would have theoretically affected every woman, had not Josephine Butler, supported by the suffragist movement, sprung into action.

Despite suffering from ill health all her life, Josephine Butler was a woman of incredible energy  and compassion, who, with the full support of her husband, fought tirelessly not only to force the repeal of the act, but to highlight the plight of the women – and children – branded as lascivious parasites, tempting men to give in to their natural urges, and living a life of ease, as the wages of sin.

The reality was, of course, very different. Maybe a few ‘fallen women’ led the life of Riley, but most were the most wretched, beaten and abused, scraping a pittance, controlled by pimps and madams who made the real money. Remember the fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist? Dickens was one of those worked to campaigned and offered practical help to prostitutes.

In a world where there was little paid work for women, they were the poorest paid, such as milliners, whose long, hard working hours could never bring in enough to stave off starvation, and who slipped in and out of prostitution for survival. They were also the maids, or governesses, who had been seduced, or raped by their employers (remember Tess of the D’Urbervilles?), who had no other choice. Any single woman with a child – even as a result of rape – had few options, with few families prepared to share social annihilation, no daycare and no benefits to turn to before the welfare state. Remember Jane Eyre returning to Mr Rochester before she knew he was a widower? – but only after she had inherited money that would mean she would never end up on the streets, and, in an age before contraception, her children in Lowood, subject to another Mr Brocklehurst. If you ever thought Jane was a prude or uptight, think again.

Then there were, as there are today, the trafficked – young girls promised marriage or a well-paid job (or even sometimes simply sold by their parents) only to find themselves trapped in a brothel, raped (and therefore ‘ruined’) with no way out. There was a constant trade in fresh, untouched girls for wealthy clients with a taste for virgins. Alongside these, there were also the children. How, as Josephine pointed out, can you call a five-year-old girl (or boy) a coquettish temptress out to snare a grown man against his will?

Josephine Butler and the suffragists, with the support of campaigners, journalists and social reformers such as Florence Nightingale, fought tooth and nail to finally have the act repealed in 1886, while the age of consent was raised from twelve to sixteen.

Josephine Butler herself faced insults and threats (including at least one close escape from possible rape when trapped by a furious crowd), to fight for understanding, justice, and dignity for all women and children.

She was a truly amazing woman, who should have a statue at every street corner as a reminder of what it took to ensure that women of all ages and walks of life, could visit a friend or carry out an errand, without facing any possibility of the physical agony, humiliation and trauma of perfectly legal steel rape, and to point out, once and for all, that sex workers were overwhelmingly the victims, not the cause, of the social ills related to prostitution. And that children are always the victims.

If you would like to know more about Josephine Butler and her many campaigns, there is an excellent section in Margaret Forster’s ‘Significant Sisters’ , and Helen Mather’s ‘Josephine Butler, Patron Saint of Prostitutes’ is a riveting history of her life and work.



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