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An Address Delivered at Exeter Hall

February 20, 1885 — Exeter Hall, London, England


I ask leave to bring before you a few thoughts of a general kind, suggested by the present situation. During our long years of conflict on this question, we have certainly learned one lesson, and that is to be courageous in allowing our principles to carry us to their ultimate and logical issue; to trust ourselves to those principles; and not to be afraid even if they seem to be leading us into dangerous tracks or perplexing situations. This is a grand lesson, as all who have had any experience of the higher spiritual life of the soul so well understand. It is a precious lesson to learn, even in its lower developments, and becomes to us a step onward. We have found that our principles have carried us into the necessary acceptance of the idea of equality in all moral matters as between men and women. Now I have just a word to say about this “equality.” It is a precious word, and without its practical application we are landed in legalised injustices of every kind. But to my mind the principle of equality needs, in order that its stern and corrective influence may be realised, to be always coupled with a very high aim, based on the recognition of the absolute authority of the moral law. There may be equality among swine wallowing in the mire; such creatures, though equals, will never tend to raise each other. There may be equality in license as well as in the strictest observation of the moral law. It is my strong conviction that in our constant aiming at equality we must never fail to ask — “Equality among whom, and in what regions?”

Into every good cause that the world has ever seen, there has crept some poisonous element which if not carefully eliminated, tarnishes if it does not ruin the work. Do not be astonished should there arise among us — if they have not even now arisen — some whose secret inclination is towards a relaxation or a casting off of high moral obligations; — should there be some who even secretly desire license in their outcry for liberty. We are told by such that the conscience of each man or woman is his or her only guide in matters of morality. To this (and here I speak as an individual, and not as the representative of any Association) I cannot wholly agree. There is such a thing as enlightened conscience, and such a thing as unenlightened conscience; and He who is the “Father of lights” has not left us without a guide in this world. The Law of God is pure and undefiled; holy, high, and yet capable of being understood by the honest and simplehearted. We have it in our hands and in our hearts. I will not cease to praise that law as long as I live; and I willingly declare that even should I myself be the first to be condemned when my own life is brought side by side with its absolute purity and rigid justice, I accept that condemnation. Whatever might be the consequences to myself, I will fearlessly stand in the full light of God’s holy law, and even if it condemns me I will uphold it as my rule of life, and continue to adore Him who prescribed it.  The equality that I desire is equality of judgment towards all alike, men and women; an absolute equality in all human laws (as also in their administration), which bear upon personal liberty and legal rights, and that all this should be based upon the highest law, and not upon any instinctive — and probably selfish — following out of what is called “the law of our nature within us.” It is my desire, and I believe that of those who work with me, that the highest moral standard should be held up by us in all our work, and that we should labour to “exalt every valley and bring low every mountain” in the sense of exalting the standard of men to that which has generally been supposed to be the pure standard of womanhood, and of bringing down the pride of men to the acceptance of that standard with all its restraints. Human law must not be relaxed in order to meet any loose morality which may be advocated on any side. I believe that the institution of the family, which is founded upon the marriage tie, is in accordance with the highest law, the Law of God; and that certain lax principles which are now advocated concerning the absolute right of every creature to live, in regard to moral matters, in accordance with his or her natural instincts, or impulses, are a departure from the sternness of the moral law, and would be the sure precursors not only of confusion and misery in society, but of injustice, and the re-establishment of a gross tyranny of the strong over the weak.

I think you will agree with me, that there is a point on which I have very firmly insisted for the last fifteen years — namely, that as we go on in our work we must see that we faithfully carry out our principles in all proposed future legislation, so that there may be no danger of slipping back into those horrors from which we trust we are now beginning to escape. This thought comes very markedly before me as an inhabitant of one of the lately subjected towns, where I have had the opportunity of observing the state of things both before and since the suspension of the Acts; and where also I hear continual rumours of the increasing desire, felt even by good and honest citizens, to obtain some sort of substitute for the suspended Acts, and to rule and regulate, through police action, in such a way as to prevent all public inconvenience from vice. In this we  all see a danger, and I ask to be allowed to speak of it for a few moments. Now, in many of our southern towns, the advocates of the Acts are asserting, ad nauseam, that vice has increased in all these towns since the suspension, and many good men are blinded by this superficial view of the case. It is not improbable that there may have been in some of these towns an appearance for a time of greater disorder in the streets. Now disorder in the streets is in itself distinctly an evil, but when considered, as in this case, relatively to the former state of things, I can hardly look on it as an evil. The former state of things merely meant that prostitutes were better drilled, not that there was less of prostitution; and looking back on my Continental experience, I would most solemnly warn my friends against the mistaken idea that drilled and housed and barracked vice is a less evil than vice which shows itself in the streets; nay, it proves in the end to be a greater evil; it is a greater cruelty to the female victims of vice, because a degrading official slavery is thereby added to the existing evil. Every system of State regulation of vice, moreover, has a large measure of the permissive element in it, and makes it more difficult for the victims to escape the idea that prostitution is a recognized trade; while the dangers for young men are increased by this permissive element, in which vice, not really checked, assumes an orderly appearance, is kept indoors and provides for itself methods of solicitation more subtle and more attractive than those open and sometimes brutal forms of solicitation which are met with in the streets. The C.D. Acts regulation means in the fullest sense, drilled, barracked, and licensed vice, with its perpetual increase of immorality and misleading leading of the public conscience. But other forms of regulation are not without a tendency in the same direction. Some will ask perhaps, then, do I object to the repression of vice? My answer is “No, not at all; if by repression is meant a perpetual direct combating of vice. But I want a wise repression; for I know that a simple external police repression, unaccompanied by strong efforts of another kind, results in merely changing the form of prostitution, and making it even more dangerous.”

This leads me to a further remark in regard to the expression I so often hear concerning “some method of reducing prostitution to a minimum in these towns.” Sympathising with the object here named, I venture to express my conviction that there does not exist any method for obtaining this end, if by method is meant some plan for discretionary discipline to be carried out by the police. The police are quite subordinate among the agencies which must be brought to bear on this evil, and can never without danger hold any but a very secondary place in regard to it, as servants, and not in any sense as guardians of morality. The evil is a moral one, and can only be met by moral and spiritual forces; nothing else will produce anything more than an apparent and superficial improvement, which would also only be temporary. We need a great revival of spiritual and moral life in these unfortunate southern towns, and we need armies of people (women as well as men) to take to heart and take in hand the reformation of their own towns.

The example of Glasgow is one which we are often told we should do well to follow, but what were the forces at work in Glasgow which produced a real reform for a time in that city? I know that city. I visited it last spring, on which occasion I met Town Councillors and other citizens engaged in different kinds of public work. On all hands these persons assured me that the improvement in the morality of Glasgow could never by any possibility have come about by simple police action, and the great fact was continually referred to, that previous to the Chief Constable’s (Mr. McCall’s) vigorous action, there had been a revival of spiritual life in Glasgow, reaching more or less to all classes, and especially changing the hearts and lives of some of the Town Councillors, and leading citizens. This stirring of the conscience had for one of its results to produce a grave desire in the minds of some of the leading men to combat with all their strength the vice and immorality of their town, and to have no more mercy on men in this respect than on women. Gentlemen did not shrink from standing at night with their backs against the doors of houses of ill fame, and warning away young men, or men of any age, who were about to enter. Therefore, when their Local Act was passed for the repression of evil houses, it was honestly and vigorously carried out by Mr. McCall. But we must recollect that Mr. McCall in his interesting evidence given before the Parliamentary Committee, frequently insisted on one thing, namely, that he could have done nothing without the moral support and active cooperation of the citizens. Here was the grand secret of his success; and the secret of the citizens’ willing co-operation lay in the fact of their hearts having been touched by the grace of God. But now, let me point out to you that simply to borrow the Glasgow code, and apply it, say to Portsmouth or Plymouth at this moment, would be inevitable failure.

There would be no guarantee of the best parts of such a code being honestly carried out in Portsmouth or Plymouth and if they were, there would rise up a crowd of vicious malcontents declaring more loudly every year that this Glasgow plan was inefficient, and that we must turn back to something like the C.D. Acts, which means the most tyrannous form of regulation, with its vile promise of fancied protection for the unworthy bodies of male sinners. In these southern towns there has been no religious revival at all. The years which have passed under the C.D. Acts have proved to be a positive moral blight; the consciences of the more respectable part of the population have been warped, while the vices of immoral men have been pampered and indulged. Reform in these towns is consequently far more difficult than anywhere else.

Nothing but a mighty breath of the Spirit of God, and a great shaking of the inhabitants from their delusions and vices, will make it possible to apply with any success any such law against the headquarters of vice as that in operation in Glasgow. It must moreover be remembered that the Glasgow Act has the grand defect in it of inequality in the treatment of immoral persons who are considered to be soliciting in the public thoroughfares. It regards women alone as loiterers for immoral purposes. This gross inequality is already breaking it down, and if not remedied will only add another to the existing laws which are falsifying the public conscience in this matter.

Never let us abate for one moment our extreme jealousy of anything like regulation of vice, even if it does not include ostensibly the horrible examinations. Why was it that we were so watchful and hostile against Mr. Bruce’s Bill? It did not profess to have in it that odious feature, but we saw clearly that it handed over a number of women so completely into the power of police, jailors and doctors, that that result was inevitable; and that in fact it was intended from the beginning by those who framed the Bill; because the hygienic aspect of the whole matter was that which they had in their minds, all along. It is a grave injustice no doubt to arrest and imprison women for an offence undefined and undefinable and for which men are not held accountable, but the great wrong concealed in that Bill, was that criminal assault upon the persons of women which we have so long fought against. This is worse than all else, and we are fully aware that laws and repressive measures concerning prostitution enacted by men without the concurrence of women have a tendency in the direction of leaving some sort of loophole for the introduction of this crowning abomination. I cannot find words, therefore, strong enough in which to abjure you never to cease to make war against any legislation on moral questions which has in it a grain of injustice towards women, for thus alone can you close the door against attempts to revive the national crime of the assault upon the persons of women by which we have been cursed so long. Let it be our part continually to promote every moral force possible to strike at the roots of prostitution, and to purify society, and let us withhold our confidence and support from measures which merely touch the outside, and which even if perfectly equal as between men and women, would not succeed seeing that they would only supply a superficial remedy, while lulling to sleep the sense of responsibility in those who should be labouring to reach and purge the sources of all this evil.

One word concerning our methods of working and the spirit in which we should work. I here desire to protest against honest persons who advocate external repressive measures being fought and striven against in the same spirit, and with the same indignation with which we have combated the abominations of the C.D. Acts. I regret to see that some of the advocates of Repeal are now in the habit of persistently attacking before the public all those who have attempted, perhaps without much enlightenment, what they call “the repression of prostitution.” It seems to me that these writers have confused the issues of our great question, and are weakening their own position.

The grand question before us all these years has been, and still is, “Are we to have the C.D. Acts or no C.D. Acts?” What measures should be taken to stop scandalous behaviour in the street is an important question, but altogether subsidiary to the other. The central point of our conflict at home and abroad is the horrible and ghastly compulsory examination, and all that hangs around it of woman hunting, registration, cruel arbitrary action, and the virtual licensing of the trade of prostitution. Was it not this which sent me fifteen years ago with such a tremendous impulse throughout the whole of England, and which at that time roused the whole nation into a feeling of unspeakable horror and shame? Do you think that such a fire would have been kindled if my text had only been “Shall we have any repressive measures against street solicitation or not?” If I had only spoken of the arrest and imprisonment of women for soliciting in the streets, no doubt audiences of honest working men and women would have agreed with me that this was an unjust act, while men were left free to tempt and insult women and girls, but it would not have had the vital force of the denunciation by the voice of a woman of this dreadful crime of which I have spoken. It was this same great impulse that led you to encourage me to go abroad in 1874 — this horrible outrage on womanhood and humanity called the “compulsory examination,” which is enough to bring a curse on Europe and on every corner of the world where it exists. Now we have friends, both at home and abroad, just-minded men who have fully imbibed an intense horror of this outrage, who have joined our crusade, and are heartily one with us on this point, but who still want further education and enlightenment. I confess that my heart has often been wounded when working on the Continent by seeing the defective judgment, or semi-blindness of some of our good friends
who, while undoing the Police des Mœurs, as it now is, would sometimes, I fear, lead us back into a wrong road by their zeal in furthering repressive measures which tell upon women alone, or which, if equally applied to both sexes, would touch only the extreme outside of the evil. These disappointments and anxieties have many a time driven me to my knees before God, from whom alone I find wisdom to act rightly; and I do find that He grants me success —and sometimes signal success — in enlightening our half enlightened friends when I take the way of persuasion and argument, with patience, friendliness and firmness.

These people are not our enemies. These repressionists, mistaken as we think them in their methods, are still honestly desirous of getting rid of prostitution; consequently they rank on our side, for that is also our desire. The advocates of the C.D. Acts desire the very opposite. They believe prostitution to be a necessity, and take measures to keep it up and (if it were possible) to make it healthy. See what a difference there is, and how unjust it is to denounce the repressionists in the same voice in which we denounce the advocates of the Acts, and to hold them up to public scorn side by side with the fanatical and unprincipled partisans of slavery to vice for women and immunity in vice for men. Remember that our League is a great school of principle; and in every school the teachers must be patient with the learners. When any good man sincerely desires to see prostitution come to an end, and thinks he is doing God service by punishing women for this vice, while not daring to apply the same penalties to men, do not let us treat him with the anger and scorn which we justly feel for those who complacently consign women to the position of State accredited instruments for the basest use, but let us sternly and patiently rebuke him, and guide him to better ideas. It is the fervent desire of my heart to win and gain over entirely to our side all that crowd of repressionists who are now, as I think, going in a distinctly wrong direction, but who may be won. They will not, however, be won by forcing them into a hostile attitude towards us by denunciation and bitterness.

Let us continue to hold our own standard high, and let us be sure that the hands which hold it are pure and unsullied.



Source: Butler, Josephine E., “An Address Delivered at Exeter Hall” (London: Dyer Brothers; Morgan & Scott), 1885.