The Contagious Diseases Act was first passed in 1864, and extended in 1866 and 1869 before finally being repealed in 1886. The acts were introduced as an attempt to regulate ‘common prostitutes’ in order to reduce the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) within the British army and navy. The acts imitated regimes that had previously been implemented in countries such as India and Greece, and were first applied to garrison towns and ports, although their coverage increased over time.
The Contagious Diseases Act made it the law for women suspected of prostitution to register with the police and submit to an invasive medical examination. The act gave the police the power to determine who was a prostitute. If the woman was found to be suffering from a venereal disease she would be confined to a ‘lock hospital’ until pronounced ‘clean’. The alternative to agreeing to the examination was three months imprisonment (extended to six months in the 1869 act) or hard labour. The acts did not enforce the examination of men.
The act evoked outrage amongst the British public because it led to the unjust treatment of women, and it was eventually repealed after an impressive grass-roots movement led by Josephine Butler, who founded the Ladies’ National Association (LNA) to campaign against the act’s implementation.