In the 19th century, as a consequence of the overwhelming popularity of prostitution, came the plague of sexually transmitted diseases. Venereal diseases such as Syphilis and Gonorrhea were indeed a pestilence in Victorian Great Britain. These diseases were not exclusively contained to female prostitutes and males who purchased their services, but also spread to the wives and children of the latter. The Great Pestilence was viewed by many as a result of the moral and societal decay in England.
Syphilis in the Victorian era was known to be an infectious disease that entered the body through a minute cut or small wound. The primary impact of the disease would be a lesion or a sore at the initial “site of inoculation.” Six to eight weeks later, a secondary eruption would flare up, generally first pink in color and eventually copper. In this second stage of syphilis, symptoms such as depression and chilling in the joints and limbs would often occur and within weeks or years disappear spontaneously. In its tertiary stage, syphilis affected the brain, liver, lungs, and muscle. This disease was most often spread through sexual contact but it also spread congenitally, where mothers would infect the infants in their womb. Most infected babies did not survive birth or infancy. (Walkowitz, 1980, p.50)
Gonorrhea in the 1900’s was misdiagnosed and not considered as serious as it really was. It was described as a purulent, or pus leaking inflammation of the mucous membrane, discharging from the urethra in men and the vagina in women. Victorian doctors however, were incorrect in their diagnosis of gonorrhea as a mild and inconsequential disease in women. In the outer physical appearance, women with this disease seemed healthy, but the doctors were unaware of the affect it had on the uterus and fallopian tubes, often, if untreated, leading to sterility and severe pelvic inflammation. (Walkowitz, 1980, p.53)
Venereal diseases had become so prevalent in Great Britain that in 1864, a reform measure called the Contagious Disease Act was passed. This act allowed policemen in garrison towns and naval ports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth, to arrest suspected prostitutes in order to have them undergo medical examinations at certified hospitals (Bartley, 12). If they were found to be diseased, they were sent to lock hospitals where they could be held in detention for a maximum of three months. Although the pressure for the medical inspection of prostitutes grew, there was no action made to examine the clients of the prostitutes, the enlisted men. The act “reinforced a double standard of sexual morality” (Walkowitz, 1992, p.23). Males in the Victorian era were not condemned for their actions in partaking of the sexual services and female prostitutes were in giving them.
Venereal diseases, especially syphilis and gonorrhea, greatly affected the masses in Victorian Great Britain. The spread of such an epidemic stirred the attention of both medical and socio-political spheres. The escalation of such a problem represented the underlying decay, filth, and moral degeneration found in England in the 1900’s.