The political legacy of shame - a brief history of women, sex and legislation in the UK

For two centuries, British lawmakers have relied on shame to regulate women's sexual behaviour. Is this finally changing?

Beulah Maud Devaney
23 June 2015

A packet of contraceptive pills. Credit: Annabelle Shemer from FlickrHas UK politics finally learnt to stop shaming women over their reproductive choices? In 2015 teen pregnancy rates have hit a 46 year low and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service recently announced that the number of teenagers seeking abortions has dropped. These encouraging statistics have been attributed to the government’s ten year plan (launched in 1998 and updated in 2010) to reduce teen pregnancy through community outreach, education and targeting at risk groups. What’s unusual about this proactive approach is that it doesn’t focus on shaming the women involved; materials distributed to support workers have focused on building positive connections and offering support to young mothers, while also educating them about their options. This may seem like a sensible approach, but UK politics has a long history of not being sensible when it comes to women's reproductive choices. The popular belief, supported by multiple pieces of legislation, has been that by making women the scapegoats for perceived social ills like promiscuity and unwanted pregnancy, women will recognise the error of their ways and stop doing all these things politicians and lobbyists don’t want them to do. So why are UK politicians so seduced by shame and have they finally been persuaded that it doesn’t work?

One of the first pieces of legislation to attempt to shame women into conforming to society's standards was the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA) in 1864. Introduced during the Crimean War and designed to prevent venereal disease in the armed forces; the CDA attempted to control the spread of syphilis by mandatory examination and treatment of sex workers in towns with soldiers stationed nearby. Men were exempt but women who were suspected of being sex workers were forcibly taken off the streets and subjected to compulsory pelvic examinations. These examinations were carried out at a time when a woman’s chastity was viewed as one of her most valuable attributes. A number of women attempted suicide after being wrongly accused of being sex workers. The authors of the CDA never did get around to examining the male carriers of syphilis and in 1869 it was extended to eighteen “at risk” districts despite no evidence that it was having a positive impact. 

The idea that women are responsible for the both their own sexual behaviour and that of their partners was reinforced in 1881 when a Select Committee of the House of Lords sat to consider the law surrounding the protection of young women. The result of their considerations (and a prolonged media campaign) was that the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, but the title of their report is striking: Law Relative to the Protection of Young Girls from Artifices to Induce Them to Lead a Corrupt Life. Once again legislation presented as being for the protection of women portrayed them as morally suspect. This law was designed to protect children from rape but girls as young as 13 could, according to the report, be susceptible to sexual temptation and must be kept from leading a “corrupt life”. The theory that women must be shamed in order to protect them has also been used to postpone legislation designed to give women greater freedom. A notable feature of debates around contraception, abortion and the morning after pill is politicians’ worry that women will take things “too far”: a view which became extremely popular in post-war Britain.


Historian Virginia Nicholson has noted that after both the first and second world wars attitudes, towards women’s sexual behaviour relaxed. Women were more inclined to seek out sexual partners, divorce rates rose and government studies throughout the 1930s reported an increase in both extramarital sex and backstreet abortions. In 1937 it was reported that up to 60,000 illegal abortions were carried out in England and Scotland yearly. A pre-WW2 inter-departmental committee had suggested that the UK’s archaic abortion laws should be amended but it wasn’t until 1967 that the Abortion Act was passed. The act was introduced as a Private Member’s Bill by Glasgow MP, David Steel. This was the seventh attempt to introduce the bill since 1953 because as Steel observed in 2004: “no government would touch the subject, leaving it to the lottery of private members' legislation”. Politicians were reluctant to be seen to be promoting abortion; worried that women would start flocking to clinics, demanding regular abortions in lieu of contraception. Once again the idea that women have to be shamed into controlling their worst natures was given political credence. 

 This reluctance to engage with women’s reproductive rights extended to legislation surrounding contraception. The pill was made available to the general public in 1961 but it wasn’t available on the NHS until 1974, as the government did not want to be seen to be promoting “free love” and promiscuity. Historian Carol Dyhouse, in her book Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, describes sex education for girls in the 1970s as a minefield: “Conservatives wanted to preserve chastity and innocence. Most of the sex education books used in schools underplayed girls’ interest in sex and suggested that they were more interested in love and romance... In addition to this, a girl was supposed to take responsibility for a boy’s continence, by not egging him on or letting him get carried away.”  This contradictory view that women were both sexually innocent and liable to sexual excess was to remain popular into the early 21st century. 

Using shame to control women only really works if the women are able to be shamed

Throughout the 1980s and 90s various moral panics erupted over the sexual behaviour of young women. Successive governments commissioned reports on the rise in teen pregnancy; the increased number of girls diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections; and the sexualisation of childhood. In 2011 the then children’s minister Sarah Teather commissioned a report entitled Letting Children Be Children which, rather hyperbolically, claimed that children were living in a world of “sexualized wallpaper”. There were calls for shops to start selling lads mags in brown paper bags and TV watershed’s received increased scrutiny but a number of journalists and politicians also turned their attention on young women. Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham and Katie Price were all targeted over their weight, clothes and sexually liberated lifestyles: Dyhouse highlights the way that Price in particular was vilified for her appeal to young women and turned into a kind of “folk devil”. The noticeable difference here was that while victims of the Contagious Diseases Act were vilified, contemporary women like Kate Moss and Katie Price have been quick to shrug off the suggestion that their sexuality is having a negative impact on society. Using shame to control women only really works if the women are able to be shamed, as MP Nadine Dorries found to her cost. 

 In May 2011, inspired by the Letting Children Be Children report, Dorries proposed a bill to target 13-16 year old girls with abstinence lessons, but not their male counterparts. Dorries went on to suggest that by failing to teach children about abstinence society was placing them at risk of sexual abuse. The subsequent withdrawal of the bill before its second reading was a strong indication that, finally, UK politics might be evolving past the idea that by shaming women it was somehow also protecting them.

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