Contagious Diseases Acts  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Contagious Diseases Acts were passed by the UK Parliament in 1864, 1867, and 1869. The initial Act of 1864 was passed after concern over the high levels of venereal disease in the armed forces: during the 1860s, one in three sick cases in the military was venereal in origin. In 1862 a committee was established to inquire into venereal disease in the forces, and on its recommendation the first Contagious Diseases Act was passed in 1864. The Act was specifically aimed at keeping down the levels of venereal disease in the armed forces by allowing plainclothed police to identify diseased prostitutes within eleven specified garrison and port towns to which the initial Act applied, and to require them to undergo mandatory medical examination and treatment.

The Act of 1864 stated that women found to be infected could be interned in locked hospitals for up to three months, a period gradually extended to one year with the 1869 Act. These measures were justified by medical and military officials as the most effective method to shield men from venereal disease. As military men were discouraged from marriage and homosexual behaviour was criminal, prostitution was considered a necessary evil. However, no provision was made for the examination of prostitutes' clientele, which became one of the many points of contention in a campaign to repeal the Acts.

After 1867 there were proposals to extend the acts to the north of England, and to the civilian population. It was suggested that this extension would stop street disorders caused by prostitution in large cities, and to regulate it.



The Acts meant that any woman who lived in, worked in, or passed through poor areas were subject to arrest and compulsory medical examination on the suspicion of being a prostitute. The Acts were often abused and labeled a misuse of police power: a number of women detained were not prostitutes but were compelled to undergo medical examination by police doctors.

Extension or repeal?

In 1869 supporters of regulated prostitution mooted the extension of the Acts to the north of England and to civilian areas; this provoked a major national campaign for the repeal of the Acts. The National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts was formed in 1869, followed by the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts which was led by the prominent feminist Josephine Butler. These repeal organizations attracted the vigorous support not only of moralists and feminists but of those concerned with civil liberties, especially since the Acts were perceived as having violated basic human rights.

Butler, a well-known orator and passionate Christian active in a host of feminist-related causes including secondary education for women, attracted huge audiences with her accounts of her own plight in having to comply with the act, the experience of which was probably due in part to official reaction to her fervent political activities, although she did at times face physical violence from opponents. Many people were appalled by her frank manner in describing sexual matters and police brutality, which drew condemnation from newspaper editors and columnists, but made her a heroine among other writers, particularly suffragist pamphleteers.

Some women disagreed with this opposition, especially those with socially traditional or politically conservative backgrounds, as well as women in the nursing profession. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, administrator of the New Hospital for Women in London, thought the Contagious Diseases Act was the only effective way of saving unknowing wives from venereal diseases which they contracted from their adulterous husbands.

On the other hand, Anderson's sister, Millicent Fawcett, was a campaigner against the acts.

The Acts were finally repealed in 1886.

Similar legislation elsewhere

There was similar legislation in various European countries along Prussian and Napoleonic models. In France similar legislation continued in force until 1946.

Similar provisions were enacted in India under the British Raj in 1897.


  • The Contagious Diseases Acts in Murray, J. Strong-Minded Women, 424-37 and Fisher, Trevor.
  • Prostitution and The Victorians. 80-94. Jane Jordan
  • Josephine Butler John Murray, 2001
  • The Contagious Diseases Acts Reconsidered F.B. Smith. Social History of Medicine 1990 3(2) pp. 197-215.
  • Chapter 5: Syphilis between prostitution and promiscuity in Peter Baldwin. Contagion in the state of Europe, 1830-1930 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Chapter 7: VD & Society in Britain, From CDA to NHS Lesley A. Hall. in Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870 Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall eds. (London & New York: Routledge, 2001)
  • The Origins, Administration, and Impact of the Contagious Diseases Acts from a Military Perspective John Gill Gamble. (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1986)
  • Walkowitz, Judith R. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, class and the state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

See also

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