There is no doubt the past is a different country. When my beloved mother took me as a primary school pupil, to Aston Hall in the Birmingham inner ring, I realized the house was made for a world apart from the one I lived in. The #8 inner circle bus route ran round the little houses of working people, but here was one house that could take 20 families. People hundreds of years ago lived differently. It was two decades before I heard the phrase “the past is another country”, and by then I realized that some things were totally different – but some things remained the same and the past was a guide to the present.

Morality in Perspective

When I began teaching Victorian history I found that society in those days claimed to be mirroring the values of Victoria herself – a respectable married woman, reacting against the sexual immorality of her Regency anscestors. Yet there was a gulf between the attitudes of the time and actual behaviour. The second theme of this age was hypocrisy – abuse of women was rife, men had a cynical double standard and both men and women could be punished savagely for practices which were legal. There was an unofficial code of conduct which at first glance was puritanical Christian – sex outside marriage was not illegal but it was not allowed- officially.

At one level the Puritanism of this rigid moral code was unquestioned, at another it was broken all the time, and the rule seemed to be that being caught breaking the code was the offence, not the behaviour itself. Puritans seemed to be in control, but looking closer the pattern was that the actual puritans had very little control – especially over the laws on prostitution, which were biased to the male interest as this was a male dominated society where women did not have the vote, and the law made it legal to have sex at age 12 through the early years of Victoria’s reign. Most girls aged 12 were not sexually mature at this age and could not understand what was happening to them – there was no sex education and even mentioning sex was taboo.

I could not agree with Lawrence Stone that the puritans dominated the early nineteenth century. This was a major theme for my first book on Victorian Morality, The Sexual Politics of Late Victorian Britain as the puritan opposition to Prostitution got nowhere. The ultra Puritanical Christians of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which believed sex outside marriage should be banned, failed totally to get the law changed. From the 1790s to the passing of the 1849 law on prostitution their campaign made no headway. The 1849 Act built on the fact that prostitution has never been illegal in Britain and made the operating principle laissez faire or free trade. Women were free to sell their bodies and men were free to buy. This was not a fair trade when women had few effective rights, little money and men had both the cash and power to force women into a sexual bargain which was unequal. A similar imbalance was happening in the gay world, though male gay sex, unlike straight sex, was illegal. Lebianism was unmentionable, so the law never mentioned it.

Parliament was unwilling to accept the puritan campaign to make the laws of the church the actual laws of the country, though the churches were powerful arguing marriage was the only official way to have sex. The willingness to tolerate prostitution was in reality an acceptance of the need to have a commercial avenue for sexual activity which bolstered marriage by allowing men to enjoy freedoms which they would never allow their wives or daughters. This was hypocritical just as ‘living in sin’ was unacceptable given that only sex within marriage was officially allowed. Marriage was a farce for many as in reality sex with prostitutes was the way many men operated their marriages – while pretending to believe sex could only happen in marriage.

Feminism was starting to become active, but for three decades after the passage of the 1849 Act the dominant political theme played around allowing but controlling sex outside marriage, which became an increasingly open government policy. After the Crimean War, (1854-56), when Victoria had been on the throne for twenty years, the poor performance of the army was said to have been down to sexually transmitted diseases. The soldiers, who had little chance to get married, had no alternative but to use prostitutes and caught diseases from them. The Government’s solution was to provide the troops with uninfected prostitutes. In 1864 an experiment in inspecting and forcibly curing prostitutes was tried and judged to be a success – for the men – so it was extended in 1866. By 1869 a third Act threatened to extend the inspections from Garrison Towns to civilian towns as soldiers did not spend all their time in their barracks.

At this point rebellion started, with the Contagious Diseases Acts now being opposed not just by puritans with a moral interest in stopping sex outside marriage but feminists who believed the rights of prostitutes to live their lives without government control were at risk. The advocate of Higher Education for women, Elizabeth Wolstenholme, enrolled the charismatic Josephine Butler to lead a campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act. This campaign became linked with the campaign to raise the Age of Consent from 12, to prevent immature girls being forced into sexual activity. While much of what then happened is purely historical and will not be repeated, several aspects are relevant in the third decade of the twenty first century. The weak point of the political arrangement was the Age of Consent being only 12 years of age.