Vice and Visibility: Changing Attitudes toward Prostitution and Sexual Behavior in Victorian Britain
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This essay explores the story of the Contagious Diseases Acts, a series of bills from Britain in the 1860s which subjected female prostitutes to forced medical examinations. Early feminist activists, largely middle-class women, campaigned furiously against these Acts, which were successfully repealed by the mid-1880s. The fervor generated by this activism also led to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which increased the powers of the state in policing brothels as well as, bizarrely, the further criminalization of male-male sexual behavior. In this essay, I argue that the activism that defeated the oppressive Contagious Diseases Acts directly led to the passage of the repressive Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 by creating a moral panic over “immoral” aristocratic male sexual behavior, leading to an increase in state power to enforce monogamous, heterosexual, and therefore moral sexual behavior.