Social Scientist. v 21, no. 244-46 (Sept-Nov 1993) p. 173.

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Prostitutes, Patrons and the State: Nineteenth Century Awadh

The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864,1866 and 1869 were introduced in England as legislation to control the spread of venereal disease among enlisted men in garrison towns and ports. Under the Acts, a woman could be identified as a 'common prostitute* by a special plain clothes policeman and then subjected to fortnightly internal examination. The prostitute if found suffering was to be interned in a certified lock hospital for a period not exceeding nine months.1

Organised public agitation against these regulations first came about in England in 1869. Till 1886, when the Act was repealed, an impressive campaign was conducted, which encouraged public discussions on a wide range of social, medical and political questions. Britain in the 1880s saw the emergence and advancement of the 'Social Purity Movement' that brought into its ambit a large number of men and women. The elimination of prostitution and the sexual abuse of girls were the primary aims of the movement. There were two streams which contributed to the movement. One was 'religious revivalism' and the other the agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts.2 In England, significantly, it was the first public issue around which all women's groups organised. In Victorian codes sexual depravity was seen as a threat to the moral and, potentially, the political order. The upper and middle classes saw the behaviour of the poor as blatantly violating the principles of the dominant moral order. The labouring classes as a whole were suspected of sexual licence and immorality that were sought to be justified by their appearance, manners, customs and life styles.3 For these reasons in Britain, the emphasis fell on moral change, reform and reintegration of prostitutes into society.

In India prostitution had its own peculiarities. The institutions invested with powers to regulate had their own problems. Control and reform seemed impossible as there was an underlying fear both of excesses being committed by the administrative personnel and of the resultant discontent. In India, the question was based less on morality or immorality and more on governing the lives of colonized people.

Research Scholar, Department of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 9-11, September-November 1993

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