Contagious Diseases Acts

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The Contagious Diseases Acts were numerous bills passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1864 to regulate prostitution on the grounds that sexually transmitted infections were a significant threat to the military. It is known for being one of the major influences for 20th century feminism due to its questionable means of regulation.[1]


By the mid-19th century, the new ideal of women as the "Angel of the Home" became dominant across the United Kingdom, resulting in women finding it harder to seek employment in industry. This led to many resorting to prostitution, with 1863 police figures estimating 27,411 to be in the profession in England and Wales alone.[citation needed] With jingoism dominating the Victorian foreign policy, a moral panic was started where venereal diseases were seen as being the greatest threat to any nation's military (while a significant portion of the soldiery were infected, the very un-sexy cholera and dysentery killed far more off the battlefield than combat).[2]

Interestingly, it was not permitted for a British soldier to have sex in this era in the first place, so it says more about the quality of the soldiery than just the attitudes of the people.[citation needed]


With an increasing number of prostitutes on the streets, the sanest problem-solving action by the jingoists was to arrest prostitutes around docks, thoroughly examine them, and then quarantine the infected for several weeks in sub-standard hospital wards before sending them back onto the streets.[3] The flaw of the Acts was that only women were subject to it, meaning there was no means of preventing infected men from having sex with those same freshly-treated prostitutes, thus failing to actually prevent the spread of the diseases.[citation needed] The feminist criticism of the time was that the legislators were too concerned with ruining the man's reputation (in both arresting him for soliciting prostitutes and in letting the neighborhood know he had syphilis). After two decades of accusations of breaching human rights, it was finally repealed.[citation needed]