Regulating sexual behaviour: the 19th century

In 1861 the Offences against the Person Act attempted to consolidate previous legislation on a range of sexual crimes against women.

Sexual crimes

It punished acts of rape (which had been punishable by death until 1841), bigamy, and sex with under-age girls, the age of consent being 12.

Although the Act attempted for the first time to provide a legal definition of rape, successful prosecution remained difficult.

Sexually transmitted diseases

In the later 1860s a series of Contagious Diseases Acts attempted to control sexually transmitted diseases in the armed services by eliminating prostitution in garrison towns and ports. The Acts were the result of campaigns by various groups concerned with public health.

However, a strong protest movement grew up - the Ladies' National Association led by the social reformer Josephine Butler - which argued that it was the men who frequented prostitutes who needed to be punished. The Acts were eventually suspended in 1883, and repealed in 1886.

Young girls in London

For several decades the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had been concerned by the sexual exploitation of young girls in London. A press campaign on the subject in 1885 had persuaded Parliament to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

As well as raising the female age of consent from 13 to 16, the Act set down a series of other regulations for the protection of young women from vice. The new legislation proved a great success, with a huge increase in the number cases being reported to the police and brought before the courts.

Hard labour

However, the Act also tightened the law against homosexuality, imposing a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment with hard labour.

Also within Living Heritage

Did you know?

William Stead, the newspaper editor who exposed the exploitation of young girls in a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, went so far as to purchase a young girl from her parents to prove what was possible.