The grisly events at
As so often, the present generation of politicians and reformers have little, if any, sense of history. There is nothing new about these discussions. The only constant is that laws relating to prostitution remain hypocritical, unjust and discriminatory. Despite recent legislation against kerb-crawling, there is still a widespread assumption that while it is abhorrent to be a prostitute, there is nothing much wrong with being a prostitute’s client.
This “double standard” goes back to Victorian times, and brings to mind one of my great historical heroines, Josephine Butler [1828-1906], who led an inspiring crusade against what she regarded as an iniquitous state of affairs for some 15 years in the mid-19th century. Mrs Butler was a remarkable woman. Her father was a cousin of the prime minister who put the 1832 Reform Act on to the Statute Book – Earl Grey. Her husband was an Anglican clergyman who was Principal of Liverpool College and later a Canon of Winchester.
In 1863 Josephine Butler’s youngest daughter was tragically killed at the age of six when she fell over the banisters onto a tiled hall floor and died at her parents' feet. This horrible loss motivated Mrs Butler to seek out and help others less fortunate then herself. She began visiting workhouses, where she first encountered prostitutes and learned from them at first hand some of the sordid details of their lives. She heard many ghastly stories. The age of consent was then 12. One girl of around that age had fled her home after her father raped her. She was taken from a shelter for destitutes by a woman who kept a brothel for soldiers. Mrs Butler asked the girl how much she earned thus. She replied “Sixpence; and out of that I had to pay fourpence to the woman of the house’. Josephine Butler commented scornfully to an all-male audience: ‘Twopence, gentlemen, is the price, in
Between 1864 and 1869 the government passed through parliament, with scarcely any opposition, a series of Contagious Diseases Acts purporting to be ‘sanitary measures’ for the better protection of servicemen. At first the Acts were confined to garrison towns, although some enthusiastic supporters wished to extend them to the whole country. The Acts provided that a policeman could, if he suspected a woman was a prostitute, name her as such and require her to sign a ‘voluntary submission’ declaring that she was a prostitute and therefore willing to undergo medical examinations at intervals for a year. If the woman refused, she was summonsed to appear before a magistrate who, on the sole word of the policeman and his own opinion, could commit her to prison if she refused to be examined. If she was found to be diseased, she was incarcerated in a ‘
These Acts were wide open to monstrous abuse, mistakes, and blackmail. Josephine Butler and her allies – who included such famous women as Florence Nightingale and Harriet Martineau – campaigned tirelessly for fifteen years until they were finally repealed in 1886. She was totally opposed to the state regulation of prostitution, and advocated equal treatment of men and women in the laws against street soliciting. During the course of her campaign, which involved her in much writing and public speaking, Josephine was vilified and sometimes violently attacked. On one occasion the mob broke all the windows of the hotel she was staying at, and she had to flee for her life. Another time she was addressing a large meeting in the hayloft of a barn when her enemies set fire to it from the ground floor, and Mrs Butler had to leap to safety from an upper widow.
Josephine Butler was indeed a brave woman who should not be forgotten. She had a human and humane attitude towards a topic which most her ‘respectable’ contemporaries shrank from in horror. How far have we advanced from those humbugging attitudes? As John Addington Symonds, distinguished literary critic and bisexual parent of four daughters - although he preferred the company of handsome young Venetian gondoliers - said: ‘Good Lord! In what different orbits human souls can move. He talks of sex out of legal codes and blue books. I talk of it from human documents, myself, the people I have known, the adulterers and prostitutes of both sexes I have dealt with over bottles of wine and confidences.’
There are many well-written books about Josephine Butler’s life. I am indebted here to the excellent PORTRAIT OF JOSEPHINE BUTLER by one of her grandchildren, A.S.G. Butler.