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The Cross Bones Graveyard located in London

link shared Jan 13, 2012 • 1 comment • 1374 views

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In 1886, the notorious Contagious Diseases Act was repealed after some three decades of acute controversy.

The Act had been a desperate, almost panic, attempt to control prostitution after an alarming spread of syphilis in the army following the Crimean War. A special police force was created to register and supervise prostitutes. They could arrest women on suspicion, require them to be medically examined, have them punitively hospitalised if found infected, imprisoned with hard labour if they refused examination. No action was taken against men.

The justification for this remarkable legislation lay in the findings of Dr William Acton, whose book, Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, had been published in 1857. According to Dr. Acton, the existence of prostitution was due solely to the sexual depravity of a certain class of women, whose unnatural sexual appetite was buttressed by a love of luxury and idleness. In Acton's view the excessive and unnatural sexual appetites of prostitutes set them apart from:

the majority of women who (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind ... As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him, and but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relived from his attentions.

Nor did Acton see that any social attention was called for the alleviate the lot of the prostitute, asserting against all the evidence that most prostitutes after a short time reverted to a most respectable settled life.

A recent study of prostitution in Victorian York (Poverty and Prostitution - France Finnigan: http://tinyurl.com/7a542v9) conclusively showed that prostitution was endemic among the poor, that prostitutes were grossly abused and impoverished from childhood, and were so degraded, enfeebled and diseased by their way of life that most attempts to rehabilitate them ended in failure. Most women who became prostitutes had no other source of livelihood and had been in need of social care from an early age.

The Contagious Diseases Act and the thinking behind it represent a gross piece of collective repression of a Victorian Society that was only amelorated by such heroic figures as the sadly forgotten Josephine Butler:


01.13.12 •
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