A picture of Josephine Butler a prominent campaigner

Prostitution and trafficking

"Beware of purity workers ready to accept [...] the fatuous belief that you can oblige human beings to be moral by force" - Josephine Butler

Gillian Murphy portrait image

Author

Gillian Murphy

Curator for Equality, Rights and Citizenship.

Background

Our collection holds primary source material relating to prostitution, human trafficking, the treatment of venereal diseases, sexual health and sexuality. The majority of the material dates from the late 19th to the mid 20th century.

Josephine Butler and the prostitution campaigns

  • Josephine Butler campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s which was finally successful in 1886. Her letters provide an insight into this campaign.
  • Who was Josephine Butler? blog post for more information about Josephine and the collections relating to her.
  • Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts was established in 1869 and led by Josephine Butler to oppose the state regulation of prostitution. Its weekly journal was The Shield was published from 1870 to 1886. From the 1890s, this organisation was concerned with regulation of prostitution in the Empire, especially in India.
Josephine Butler poster addressing the women of Pontefract
Josephine Butler poster addressing the women of Pontefract, 1872.

International prostitution and trafficking

A related topic to prostitution is human trafficking, historically known as the ‘white slave trade’.

Touts for a Japanese brothel in Calcutta.
Touts from the Japanese brothel area of Calcutta.

Sexual health and sexual offences

  • Association for Moral and Social Hygiene was founded in 1915 and renamed the Josephine Butler Society in 1962. It campaigned against state regulation of prostitution in India and attempted to repeal the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Acts in the First and Second World Wars. It was also concerned with a wide range of issues relating to sexuality in general.
  • Josephine Butler Society Library contains a unique collection of books, pamphlets, journals, leaflets and campaigning documents. Printed material dates from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. 

Prostitution in Victorian London

Cartoon strip in Urdu about syphillis
Cartoon strip in Urdu about syphillis.

How to search  

You can find more material on this topic using a person’s name, by organisation, by event, by keyword eg age of consent, child prostitution, criminal law, criminology, prostitution, public health, sexuality, sexual offences, social morality, social purity, traffic in women and children, venereal disease, white slave trade in these catalogues.

View lists of further resources covering:

How to access

Most of the material highlighted here is stored in closed access and must be consulted in The Women’s Library Reading Room. Find out how to book your place and order material on our access archives and special collections page.

Further information

If you need specific help with any of the collections mentioned here get in touch with our Curator for Equality, Rights and Citizenship, Gillian Murphy