Two Sides of the Story

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I was interested to read the review by Diana Swingler of Jane Jordan's biography of Josephine Butler (February SR).

The Contagious Diseases Acts have rightly become notorious for the regime of harassment and abuse which they introduced in the mid-19th century, not only for women working as prostitutes but for working class women in general. Certainly Josephine Butler was the key figure in the cross-class campaign which eventually led to their repeal. I wonder, however, whether Jane Jordan's biography has anything to say about what happened after their repeal?

The Contagious Diseases Acts were suspended in 1883 and repealed in 1886. But in 1885 a new Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed on the back of sensational press reports about juvenile prostitution, which led to shortlived agitation and an enormous demonstration in London. On the back of this agitation, the new law entrenched police powers to close down brothels and punish soliciting. It also criminalised male homosexuality (rather than specific acts) for the first time and raised the age of consent to 16. It was pivotal in creating an official approach to prostitution which survived well into the 20th century. The law was the crowning glory of the Victorian social purity movement, which essentially set out to suppress all public expression of 'vice' and 'immorality' by using the full weight of the police and the law against prostitution, while 'saving' the fallen women by retraining them as domestic servants!

It still seems shocking today that Josephine Butler was a supporter of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. In terms of her political development Butler's life is a story of two parts--the heroic Christian feminist opponent of the Contagious Diseases Acts who ended up in an alliance with the reactionaries of the social purity movement.

For socialists and feminists today I think there are a couple of lessons. Firstly, we should be extremely suspicious when talk about 'protection' of the vulnerable is used to argue for sweeping powers to the police, Secondly, if the ideological basis of a social movement is contradictory it will at some point face a stark choice about its direction. For some, opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts was based on opposition to the oppression of working class women. For others it grew out of an opposition to 'the state regulation of vice'. The latter position could easily develop into support for the state repression of vice--whatever the consequences for the prostitutes themselves. This is precisely what happened in the 1880s and the tragedy of Butler is that the limitations of her liberal and Christian worldview led her into going along with it.

All this may seem a long way from the situation facing us today but it does offer a historical warning of what can happen if revolutionary socialists do not try to actively shape the ideological aspect of social movements and create as strong and influential a socialist component as possible.

Ed Mynott