A Painful Subject

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A Painful Subject

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, October 23, 1872)

Modern society, after all, does not differ very much from the old massive fortresses of the Dark Ages – at least in one respect. Beneath the proudly towering walls of the feudal castle lay the deep and dark dungeon, in which, secluded from human ears or helpfulness, unfortunate victims were thrown to starve to death.

Traditions and legends clinging to the moss-grown stones and grassy mounds, which mark the sites of these ruined keeps, still keep alive in the minds of men the ghastly realities of the departed past. Such are the tales of the fate of the Duke of Rothesay, in the dungeons of the tower of Falkland; and that of Sir Alex Ramsay, in those which underlie the gloomy pile of Hermitage. When these knights were gasping out their last breath in moans and delirious shrieks; when reason reeled and the hunger-maddened wretches bit and tore at their own flesh; still sounded in the lordly palace above them the song, the jest, the roundelay; still gathered festive groups in merry converse; and still, to the notes of measured melody, swept the light feet of youth, in the mazy dance. Below was starvation and agony, madness, death; above, unheeding the ghastly tragedy of the dungeon, was enacted the sprightly comedy of the banquet and the boudoir. So is it still in the fair seeming palace of modern society. Deep down in the dark dungeons of despair, at the roots of the social edifice, dwell a vast multitude of the victims of Vice, the helpless, degraded, unwomanly women, whose daily bread is gained by the sale of all that woman holds dear. Above them is the fair assembly of those upon whose brow beats the light of domestic peace, and whose life is one continued record of social joys and the calm deep pleasures which spring from friendship and love.

Wrapt (sic) up in their own comfort, braced up by the consciousness of an austere morality, but all forgetful of the example and precepts of the Founder of their faith, the dwellers above heed not the sufferings of those below, any more than did Lord Soulis the death cries of the hunger-maddened victims of his cruelty. Not only are they callous to the fate of those daughters of the night, for whom the day star of hope has gone out, but they resent as an impertinence any reference to the subject by those whose ears are not hardened that they cannot hear the groanings and the sighs which are ever arising from these quarters of despair. In spite of such resentment, in spite of the repelling frown and the Pharisaic shrug of injured morality, the subject forces itself upon our notice; and now, thank Heaven!, it is demanding the attention of the Christian community as it has never done before. Look at it how we like, consider it how we may, it is impossible to deny the vast importance of this question. A deadly ulcer eating into the very vitals of our society, needs to be met in other ways than by turning our heads on the other side and murmuring “Laissez faire,” while it continues its ravages unchecked. There is one consolation strengthening us in our resolve to discuss the subject in these columns, and that is that the chief outcry against any allusion to it comes not from the Christian matron or the Christian father, but from the vicious and the Pharisaic. We can easily imagine how sternly the Lord of Galloway forbade any priest whose soul was tortured by the groans of the hapless Ramsay to allude, in the chambers of hermitage, to the sufferings of his victim; and the same way those men, who themselves have been instrumental in ruining women, are, of all others, most fastidious, lest the mooting of the subject should damage the moral sense of the community. There are none who are so nice in their language as those who are nasty in their ideas, and there are few so scrupulously averse to any allusion to the subject of prostitution in public, as those who are most familiar with it in private. In spite of the shrieks of sanctimonious profligate, the Contagious Diseases Acts demand our consideration.

In noticing the working of these Acts, we shall waive entirely the appeal to morality. It is necessary to do this because too many of their advocates know little, and care less, about either morality or virtue. If that sounds too harsh, we may soften it by saying that even as the pirate erased the Eighth Commandment of the Decalogue, they have omitted all reference to the Seventh when forming the ideal of virtue. Nor have we much to say to the doctors. We respect the profession, but it is a profession with a very strong caprit de corpe, and when once those who are considered as the chief authorities in the profession have declared themselves on any question, the rank and file, as a rule, hasten to embrace the views of their leaders with a docility and a readiness which the members of the most despotic trades union cannot excel. We have but one word of warning for our medical friends. It has been said that the sceptre which passed from the hands of the priests and the soldiers to those of the lawyers, is once more about to be placed in the hands of another profession.

As lawyers succeeded priests, so, it is thought, will doctors succeed their brethren in the law. Their power is growing. Every year increases their authority over the people. Let them beware lest, by insisting upon an extension of their sovereignty in such an arbitrary manner, while it is yet in its infancy, they may for ever wreck their prospects of coming rule. Our objection to the Acts, put simply and briefly, amounts to this. They places the honour and reputation of woman in the hands of informers, profligates, and policemen. Her honour is to a woman what life is to a man. Yet by these Acts the accusation of one witness, founded, as it was admitted before the Commissioners, upon the hints of the loosest men, and the most depraved of woman, is sufficient to stamp a woman with disgrace and send her home with character blasted for ever. Nearly all the safeguards with which the law jealously surrounds the liberty, the property, and life of man, are removed in order to facilitate the sacrifice of the reputation, the modesty, and a fair fame of woman. Admitting that the Police do their duty as well as mortal men can, still we refuse – emphatically and persistently refuse – to consent to place the reputation of any woman at their mercy. But we admit that if the supporters of these Acts could prove that they achieved the end for which they were passed, considerable tampering, even with the liberty of the subject, might be excused, although we would never sanction, even in this case, any inroads upon the liberty of the sex that is un-represented in Parliament, and is denied any means of bringing its wishes to bear upon the Government.

Can regulation, as it stands in the Contagious Diseases Acts, with all its loathsome details of police spies and medical inspection, appreciably check the ravages of syphilis? We appeal in this case not so much to the cases of a few isolated garrison towns, where they have been but a short time in operation, but to the cities where the regulation of prostitution has become a department of Government. Paris, in 1867, with a Bureau des Moeurs in full working order, with twenty-seven police officials and twenty examining surgeons, should certainly be able to show us good results. There, under Napoleon, they were hampered by no scruples about liberty of the subject. If anywhere, regulation in Paris should succeed. But what were the results? There were 3,853 regulated women, and an unregulated mass of 30,000 entirely beyond the reach of the department. Disease might be discerned in one, while it flourished unchecked in seven. The whole force of Bonapartist bureaucracy failed to secure the necessary examination of more than one seventh of the public women in its capital. It is the same at Berlin. While 1650 stand upon the register, over 13,000 are suspected. Clandestine prostitution increases enormously the moment regulation is attempted, and despotism itself cannot fasten its iron grip upon the class of suspects. When it tries to do, it crushes the liberty and the modesty of the innocent in its clumsy attempts to seize the guilty for examination. But not only is Governmental regulation a dead letter in relation to the masses of public women, but the most eminent authorities- those of Paris, for instance – insist that it is almost useless, unless it is applied to both sexes alike. This we know cannot be done. Hence we demand the repeal of the Acts, because they outrage our English notions of liberty and Justice; because they are practically useless, inasmuch as all the men, and a great proportion of the women, elude all regulation whatsoever; and because it is scandalously unfair that laws which they detest and abhor, should be forced upon the weaker sex, while we dare not apply the same measures, no matter how necessary, to the male portion of the community. When we come to consider what should be done, a wide field lies open on before us – too wide even to enter at present. Suffice it to say, that before anything can be attempted, these infamous Acts must be swept of the Statute Book of our land.