Wednesday 5 March 2014

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby...

“Nothing wears me out so, body and soul, as anger, fruitless anger...” - Josephine Butler, September 1869

Nothing gets people crankier than sex.  They’re either not getting enough, or not getting it good enough, or telling others who they can and can’t have sex with.  People pretend sex is a personal matter; however those most coy about it seem to be the most interested in the sex lives of others.  Our holy men and our politicians have a long, well-deserved reputation for being nosey bastards when it comes to sex – entire legislative acts have been devoted to governing the sex lives of others out of the bizarre belief that people women will drag entire nations into moral disrepute and economic failure should they have sex without permission and/or with someone other than a socially sanctioned partner.  Honest discourse about sex has historically been curtailed by the protestations of upper middle class white men whose entire understanding of the female sex organs fell into two categories: our clitorises either made us whores or made us hysterical.  Both were moral and medical failures we could neither challenge nor confront without being told our very indignation was supporting evidence of us either being  whores or hysterical.  What’s a girl to do?

There was a Sister in the 19th century who refused to look at women’s bodies as crime scenes on legs, brazenly walking the streets waiting to lure innocent men into disease ridden traps.  Men had long been thought to be the innocent victims of prostitution, the wounded prey of their own uncontrollable desire coupled with a surplus of tarts on the loose.  My Sister shined there, getting behind the Moral Reform Union in 1884 which petitioned Parliament to criminalize the Johns as mercilessly as they did the tarts.  But it was her work against the Contagious Diseases Acts (passed in 1864, 1866 and 1869) that leads me to champion her as the Queen of Crank.   I speak of Josephine Butler, and she had sex on her mind.

The Contagious Diseases Acts were virulently anti-female and although there were many mumbles, even some of the most courageous feminists of the time were shy of attaching their names to this cause.  Doing so would not only destroy their own reputations, but that of their husbands also.  But Josephine got cranky and began demanding that her highfalutin feminine sisters wake the fuck up and begin to recognize that all women were victimized and abused by what only a few had to suffer.  (No vapours please).

So what were the Contagious Diseases Acts?  Here’s the rub: they began as a way of stamping out the rampant spread of STI’s in Army and Navy bases in Great Britain.  (That’s our fault, right?)  The law stated that any woman even suspected of being a prostitute in areas where the CDA was in force (mostly ports and towns near army bases) could be forcibly removed from the street (“But I was just going to buy apples!”) and taken to the nearest police station for a non-consensual and invasive intimate medical examination.  If she had an STI she was immediately committed to a “Lock Hospital” (name says it all) until such a time as she was deemed “clean”.  If she was not suffering an STI, she was given a shilling and sent on her way (“You keep being a good girl now!”).  Of course her hymen had been broken by the examination, she was bleeding and no longer thinking about apples, but at least the armed forces were safe.

It was working class women who bore the brunt of this, and my Cranky Sister Josephine exposed herself to unimaginable abuse as an upper class woman championing the rights of her lower class Sisters.  Josephine Butler argued, quite rightly, that if there were any unclean women on the streets they didn't get that way all on their lonesome.  There was a dick involved.  So either arrest and punish both guilty parties or...neither.  In 1886 and CDA was finally repealed.  But it had been a 20 year battle for Josephine Butler.  She formed the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869 and her anger kept her going until she saw success.  Not pity.  Not moral indignation.  Josephine was the ultimate Cranky Sister.

Josephine Butler died on December 30th 1906.  She was 78.  She outlived a husband she adored and predeceased sons who respected her.  Josephine formed many of the strategies still now used in feminist discourse and called a spade a spade at a time when euphemism threatened to cleverly cloak some of the darkest crimes against women in history.  Her triumph over the CDA has been overlooked, as has her anger.

And so I celebrate my Cranky Sister - Josephine Elizabeth Butler (nee Grey) - born 13th April 1828, died 30th December 1906.

If I were half the woman...

This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support our Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.

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