Between 1864 and 1869, four laws, known as the Contagious Diseases Acts, were passed by the British Parliament in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed services. These Acts, which applied to certain military stations, garrison, and seaport towns, gave a police officer authority to arrest any woman found within the specified areas whom he considered to be a prostitute. The woman in question was then brought before a magistrate who, if he agreed with the arresting officer, would order her to register and submit to a medical examination. If found to be suffering from venereal disease, she was sent to a hospital where she could be detained for three months or longer, at the discretion of the physican in charge. If she refused to submit to the examination or to enter the hospital, she could be imprisoned with or without hard labor.
This legislation was enacted at the urging of officials in the War Office and the Admiralty who believed that the efficiency of the army and navy was being dangerously impaired because of the high incidence of venereal disease. Ultimately, they maintained, the security of the nation itself would be jeopardized.
Parliament passed these laws very quietly, and the press referred to them only briefly, ostensibly because the subject was not considered seemly for public discussion. Little by little, however, English men and women became aware of this legislation, and with awareness came criticism.