Great Social Evils —The Contagious Diseases Act of Canada


Granted, there were other, horribly sexist and awful laws enacted through our time but the  Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s was awful. These acts forced women to involuntary genital examination if they were suspected of having a venereal disease or had an affair. They were brutal, unfair, and cruel– and immediately people protested them and sought to have the laws repealed–which they finally were in the early 1880s.

It began in 1864 when something underhand happened in the Houses of Parliament in the UK. A bill was passed with no publicity, no debate, no discussion and no dissent. The public knew nothing about it, for all that the newspapers reported was that ‘The Contagious Diseases Bill passed its reading’.

By an extraordinary  ‘coincidence’, a Bill for the prevention of contagious diseases in cattle were also being debated around that time, and under precisely the same name ‘the Contagious Diseases Bill’, and so of course people assumed that any mention of those words in the newspapers referred to diseases of cows.

And so in 1864 a new law was brought in quickly. The secrecy was maintained when it was extended in 1866 and again in 1869. But the new law did not apply to cattle at all; it stripped half the human population of their civil rights. And this was known only by the few who administered and applied it.


This meant that any woman walking along a street in her own town was liable to be watched and followed by a plain-clothed policeman hell bent on identifying prostitutes. In those days without cars, most ordinary women walked everywhere, whether going to work, to church, to meetings, or on errands, shopping, or visiting. Every one of them, in 138 towns and parishes, fell under suspicion. A woman need only bump into a male acquaintance in the street and exchange a “good evening” with him to find herself arrested and forcibly genitally examined.


The “Contagious Disease Act” also passed in Canadian parliament and existed from 1865-1870 but there was silence among the Canadian public with regards to the act. But it was known as a way to control venereal disease and attempt to rehabilitate those who were a prostitute or had an out of wedlock affair— if they were proven guilty they were sent off to asylums and prisons.

The 19th century Canadians had no idea how to treat  prostitution, and wondered if it was a necessary evil, or the result of a male sexual erection. Anyone could swear that a female  was a woman of ill repute before a justice of the peace and she would be forced to be examined. In the UK the law was restricted to ports where the military sailed in, but in Canada it was governed everywhere.

Many middle class and upper class women put themselves in a straitjacket of chastity which forced their husbands to seek fallen women. There were so many false promises of marriages, mock marriages that had no legal status and deliberate attempts to entangle a woman in debt or emotional dependency that reform for the law was demanded. It was said the reason being was that Canadian women were being forced into prostitution by untruthful men. Of course men were never examined as they objected to it. Bet this was a tale no one ever told you. I know I had not heard about it until today.

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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