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Department of Geography


Historical Geographies of the Regulation of Prostitution in Britain and the British Empire

In the nineteenth century many European states attempted to regulate sex work in order to combat the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, with a particular anxiety about the health and readiness of the state’s armed forces. Within a predominantly medical discourse of social hygiene, one that showed evident gender and class biases, governments targeted sex workers as the primary conduits of infection. Prostituted women were identified via systems of registration, regularly inspected by doctors for signs of contagious venereal disease, and if necessary incarcerated until such time as they were thought to present no immediate threat to public health. Regulationism was thus presented as a modern answer to a major social problem.


British government involvement in strict regulationism was relatively limited, at home, to the operation of the Contagious Diseases Acts from 1864 to 1883 in a score of military towns and naval stations in England and Ireland. These were never as systematic or widespread as continental European exemplars. Regulationist statutes operated, however, in many British colonies, where considerations of colonial security were paramount. In such places state intervention into sexual relations (commercial and otherwise) was of signal significance, and they offer a counterargument to the notion that British liberalism was largely responsible for the limited engagement with regulationist practice.

This project involves a reconsideration of British involvement with the regulation of prostitution through an analysis of its distinctive geographies. First, there is the contrast, in discourse and practice, between British and continental European traditions. Secondly, there is the distinction, again discursive as well as material, elaborated between the metropolis and the colonies. Thirdly, there are the differences between various sites, at home and abroad, where forms of regulationism existed, and also the imperial network that connected them to each other. A major monograph came out in 2009, but further work on the government of sexualities in the modern era, particularly in the context of international moral regulation, continue to be a significant focus of research.


  • P. Howell, 2013, ‘Afterword: remapping the terrain of moral regulation,’ Journal of Historical Geography 42, pp. 193-202.
  • P. Howell, 2009, Geographies of Regulation: Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain and its Empire (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
  • P. Howell, D. Beckingham and F. Moore, 2008, ‘Managed zones for sex workers in Liverpool: contemporary proposals, Victorian parallels,’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(2): pp. 233-50.
  • P. Howell, 2008, ‘Prostitution: overview’ and ‘Prostitution: comparative history,’ in B.G. Smith (Ed) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History (Oxford, Oxford University Press), pp. 526-535.
  • P. Howell, 2005, ‘Prostitution and the place of empire: regulation and repeal in Hong Kong and the British imperial network,’ in Lindsay J. Proudfoot and Michael M. Roche (Eds) (Dis)placing Empire: Renegotiating British Colonial Geographies (Aldershot, Ashgate), pp. 175-197.
  • P. Howell, 2004, ‘Sexuality, sovereignty and space: law, government and the geography of prostitution in colonial Gibraltar,’ Social History 29(4), pp. 444-464.
  • P. Howell, 2004, ‘Race, space and the regulation of prostitution in colonial Hong Kong,’ Urban History 31(2), pp. 229-248.
  • P. Howell, 2003, ‘Venereal disease and the politics of prostitution in the Irish Free State,’ Irish Historical Studies Vol. XXXIII, No. 131, pp. 320-341.
  • P. Howell, 2000, ‘Prostitution and racialised sexuality: the regulation of prostitution in Britain and the British Empire before the Contagious Diseases Acts,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18 (3), pp.321-339.
  • P. Howell, 2000, ‘A private Contagious Diseases Act: prostitution and public space in Victorian Cambridge,’ Journal of Historical Geography 26(3), pp.376-402.