Let us go back to 1864 in Great Britain, a period of social reform and evangelical ideals.  During this period of time prostitution in Britain began to gain ground and the government’s reaction was to instate the Contagious Diseases Act.

The Contagious Diseases Act was instated in 1864 as a result of growing venereal disease (Sexually Transmitted Infections -STIs) in Great Britain as a result of unsafe sex practices in the armed forces. Shockingly, Britain’s disapproval manifested itself in an action against female prostitutes as the vector of STIs. The act was brutal in its treatment of women- many of which had little recourse other than prostitution.  It is a negative moment in Britain’s history during a period of high political reformation. It inspired women to seek for higher status in the government through the form of women suffrage.

The deviousness of the Act lies in how it was enacted in 1864.  The goal was to reduce the spread of STIs by reducing the number of prostitutes in the districts of Britain near barracks. Men of the armed forces would often seek relief through sex by purchasing the time of a prostitute and spreading STIs they had received from intercourse in the past- or they received them from the prostitute. The Contagious Disease act allowed for women to be placed in an asylum where they could- and would- be forced into a physical gynecological examination to check for sexually transmitted infections. From there women would be subjected to insertion of speculums into their vagina for an intense examination. If proven to have an STI they were then forced to remain in the asylum for treatment, if treatment existed.  Therefore, rather than treating both men and women for their infections the government ostracize the women who were often poor, illiterate, and unable to provide for their own sexual safety in an attempt to escape poverty.

Today, much more is known about STIs and their symptoms and transmission. A lack of knowledge and the availability of safe sex supplies such as barrier condoms – fabric and animal membrane as well as withdrawal were the few attempts made at prevention of pregnancy and STI transmission – allowed for the Contagious Disease Act to proliferate in Britain. It was dismantled in 1886 after avid discontent and pressure from reformist groups were placed against the government.

In response to a History 151C Lecture: