Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The reformers did not, as a rule, succeed in getting Parliament to provide legal sanctions against the matters which they criticized, frequently because of their extremist character. Thus in 1800 and again in 1856 and 1857, attempts were made to have Parliament impose the death penalty for adultery, but the motions were defeated. The reformers did, however, succeed in securing the passage of an Act banning marriage with a deceased wife’s sister — a measure which was not repealed until 1907. No doubt they would have attempted to revive use of the ecclesiastical courts, but ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the laity had been finally destroyed in 1788 when an Act was passed preventing ecclesiastical action against incontinence. Nevertheless, on two occasions attempts were made to act against adultery by “presentment“. The authorities, however, showed themselves reluctant to challenge the civil power, and both cases were dropped. Probably the last occasion on which the ecclesiastical courts attempted to impose the traditional penance of appearing in church in a white sheet was in 1833, when a court imposed it on a woman who had offended against the Deceased Wife’s Sister Act: but a medical certificate that this would endanger the woman’s health was submitted, and the matter was allowed to drop.

On the other hand, the private societies for the suppression of vice multiplied and brought numerous prosecutions. As early as 1757 a Society for the Reformation of Manners was founded with Wesleyan support. Five years later it was driven into bankruptcy when convicted of employing false testimony (echoes of medieval mendacity!) but in that five years it had brought more than 10,000 prosecutions. In 1789 the Proclamation Society was founded to give effect to the royal Proclamation against Vice: in 1803 it set up a Society for the Suppression of Vice. Other reformist societies included the Association for Securing a Better Observance of Sunday, the Society for the Prevention of Female Prostitution, and the Religious Tract Society, which by 1844 was distributing the prodigious number of 15 million tracts a year.

The declared object of the Proclamation Society (which numbered on its board a duke, both archbishops and seventeen bishops) was to suppress “licentious publications“, but, as usual, the attempt was made to suppress all free speech on matters which the patrists found unacceptable.(215) Its offspring, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was used to prosecute “The Republican“, a paper defending free speech and a free press. Tom Paine was obliged to flee the country on the publication of his “Rights of Man” (and had in turn to flee from France to America, where his “Age of Reason” was no better received). The Society, however, prosecuted and succeeded in having imprisoned a bookseller who had continued to sell his works. In 1820 a so-called Constitutional Association was formed to prosecute “seditious works“. Among the works it thought seditious, and against which it successfully brought prosecutions, were Palmer’s “Principles of Nature” and Shelley’s “Oedipus Tyrannus” and “Queen Mab“. Murray, Byron’s publisher, was so afraid of its activities that he hesitated to print the first two cantos of Don Juan. (194) But this gang of intolerant patrists — it included the Duke of Wellington, six bishops and twenty peers — went so much further than public opinion would allow even in that age of reaction, that after only three years it had to suspend operations. The State, too, began to act against free speech, raising the tax on newspapers to 4d., at which figure it remained until 1855. The political character of the tax was made abundantly clear by its extension in 1819 to political magazines.