XXX:  A Cultural Exploration of Contemporary Feminism’s Relationship with Commercial Sexuality M.Dante © 2003

Abstract: Questioning the relationship of prostitution with feminism, XXX investigates the history of the sex industry, and how over the last thirty years it has contributed to fragmenting the American women’s movement. Amidst the disagreements there are issues that greatly need unified attention, not just to better conditions for women who choose to work in the sex industry, but also to assist in defining the laws to protect women that are brought into the trade against their will; e.g. during armed conflict.

The Prostitution of Sexuality: Sex in American Law. Sexual freedom is not a new concept. Free love societies began in the Victorian era and were as controversial then as were drug-induced love-ins during the mid and late 1960s. Regarding commercial sex trade, the laws now used against many in the sex industry have also been intact for many, many decades, though their purpose is not necessarily preserved with original intent. An example of this is The Mann Act, a law preventing a man (or business entity) from crossing a state line with a woman who is not one’s wife, paying for a woman to cross a state line, or coercing a female or minor to cross a state line under the guise of false employment or for reasons of perverse nature. This is an ambiguous federal law which, though created for a seemingly good reason, has been grossly misappropriated. Crossing the Line, a resource dedicated entirely to the history of the law was published by University of Chicago Press as part of a series called The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History & Society. The series offers an important view at subject matter often deleted from many basic American history texts.  The position of the book is adamantly against the law because of the way it has been used against citizens who are innocent of the actual reason for the law’s creation. Also, it is a felony with a very severe penalty regardless of the individual situation for which it is recommended. One example takes place in the early 1950s when a seventeen-year-old boy was out on his birthday with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend. While driving around trying to find a place to “pet” after a party, he accidentally crossed the state line, did not know it, was pulled over for speeding and held in custody for violating the Mann Act. Both his/her parents adamantly argued on behalf of both teenagers, and the charges were – luckily – dropped.

“The Mann Act”, known prior as “The White Slave Traffic Act”, federally “prohibits transporting women over a state line for immoral purposes.” Many people believe that this applies only to prostitutes or strippers; others believe it only applies to those adversely coerced. Originally intended for slave traders (mainly considered to be Russian Jews and Negroes), the Mann Act was actually used mainly to place “immoral types” in prison for anywhere from six months to twenty years for sexual misconduct; sex that was not within the proper definitions of marriage, such as Kant had taught.  In 1908 the United States committed itself to an international agreement for the repression of trade in white women. This was known as the White Slave Traffic Act. In 1910 the statute was officially created, and though debated, it is still on the books. Congress has chosen to keep it on the books, despite requests to rewrite or remove the law.  “Under the most extended libertarian argument imaginable, men who would drug and kidnap women, force them to prostitute themselves, and hold them as prisoners are clearly legitimate and most appropriate targets of government power.”[48] The problem is that most of the people charged with violating the Mann Act were not guilty of the above-mentioned crimes. Most of the people who were found guilty of violating the Mann Act between the 1930s and late 1950s were couples committing adultery, couples on secret rendezvous or vacations. No slave traders were caught. “It seems clear enough that interstate travel for the purpose of the mutual enjoyment of sexuality by a man and a woman, as lovers and as friends, is an activity that imposes no tangible harm on anyone. Its suppression is at odds with the American system of limited government and ought to be abhorred by all who respect liberty.” [49]

Before going any further, let’s step back and get an understanding of where this controversial federal law started. In 1875 the import of women for the purpose of prostitution became illegal in America. Note that it became illegal, which implicitly implies that the purchase of foreign women had been legal for over a century prior. Around this controversial change which led to underground prostitution channels were numerous activist groups, the leaders of which were The (Social) Purity Group and the Social Hygiene Group.  An international equivalent of the American Purity Movement was started by Josephine Butler, William Alexander Coote and William T. Stead, and was waged in England against international brothels dealing in very young white girls. This charge was magnified in an article that appeared in 1885 in the Pall Mall Gazette.

The fear and agitation that the article created resulted in an international conference, and in 1902 the proposal of an international arrangement for the suppression of the traffic in young girls and women. A formal treaty was drawn up in 1904. In 1905 the United States Senate consented to the international treaty, and on 15 June 1908, President Roosevelt proclaimed American adherence to its terms. This would become the basis of Section Six, the Mann Act.

Let’s take a moment to go back again, and look at the origin of the American Purity Movement. First, prostitution existed in segregated districts of most American cities: San Francisco had its Barbary Coast, Chicago the Levee, New York the Tenderloin, New Orleans had Storyville, and smaller districts thrived in Washington D.C. (Division), Salt Lake City (Stockade) and Fort Worth (Hell’s Half Acre). St. Louis also had a district, and it is there that the Purity Movement began. In 1870, changes began taking place in accepted brothel arrangements. In St. Louis, legalized prostitution by ordinance, regulating what had been de facto arrangements, forced the licensing of brothels and required periodic medical inspections.

Middle-class women attacked vice. They named themselves the Purity Movement and lobbied for various changes. First was to raise the age of sexual consent, which in some states was a low as ten years old. That means that there was no separation between child trafficking and consensual, adult prostitution. The second was an attack on the theory that men had a physical necessity to engage in sexual intercourse. The third was an urge to allow open sexual discussions, decrying the “Victorian reticence that precluded open consideration of sexual topics.” This would evolve into a moral brigade set up to rescue prostitutes. In 1904 the American Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis was set up by Dr. Prince A. Morrow to deal with ways of preventing disease; creating a cleaner, urban society. Soon thereafter began the Red Light Abatement Movement, where courts joined in brothel operation for a period of time, and then closed them all down. Reports from that era scream of complicity in the name of cleanliness. The initial clean up lasted only a few years.

By 1914 prostitution was considered a product of three developments that were causing angst amongst progressive thinkers in America: 1. Prostitution became a symbol of decline and a manifestation of social dislocations. 2. Prostitution gave deeper meaning to the problems of immigration, urbanization and the dramatic roles of women that threatened traditional forms of social control and traditional ideas of civilized morality. 3. New immigration.

In 1900 the U.S. population was 76 million. By 1914 the population had gone up to 99 million, and would almost double in a very short period. Originally comprised of immigrants from Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, and Ireland, the new additions to the U.S. population were Roman Catholics and Jews from Poland, Italy and Russia. Prostitution became a flashpoint for social tensions because of immigration, urbanization and the increased sexuality of women; cultural differences surrounded and exaggerated these three points.

An aggressive police task force was commissioned and sent it to eradicate the “problem”. After basic whoredom was cleaned up though, rumors began in Chicago that Russian Jews were selling white country girls in an open black market. This would create the famous “white slave scare” that would lead to attorney Edwin W. Simms drafting the White Slave Traffic Act in 1910, with the support of his friend in the Senate, James R. Mann. At first, people stood behind the Act, because, of course, no good American believed in slavery. Within twenty years, though, the Mann Act would become one of the most abused laws on the books. Beginning with everyday lovers in serious trouble as they snuck away on secret rendezvous (Caminetti v. The United States), the Mann Act would not really come under scrutiny until the McCarthy era when false charges were pressed against Charlie Chaplin, who was set up for his radical politics, and boxer Jack Johnson for his controversial interracial marriage. Even so, the Mann Act would stay intact.

During the “sexual revolution,” the Mann Act became more difficult to enforce. Women were traveling America with men and even living in nomadic or communal domestic situations which differed from the conventional marriage of yesteryear. In an effort to make the act more relevant to modern issues, the government added that the Mann Act had to coincide with RICO (racketeering) charges.

In the 1970s, there was an upsurge in young prostitutes being brought to New York from other parts of the country. By 1978 Washington D.C. cops began investigating teenage prostitutes in their city and found they were imported into the District by pimps from California. At the end of the 1970s, The Mann Act was used for extreme acts of transport for the first time in its history. By the 1980s, though, much of the business of teens was back to small, specialty districts. The Mann Act was used against consensual adult entertainment entities that the government viewed as criminal networks involved in RICO, conspiracy to aid and abet prostitution rings and the interstate commerce of women. In the 1990’s when state or local authorities may not have cared about local adult businesses, the threat of the Moral Squad and the Mann Act loomed heavily above adult entertainment’s heads. Traveling workers were/are a huge part of maintaining diversity for clientele.

Though it may have once served a decided public purpose, is the Mann Act now protecting our nation from the threat of white slavery? Or is it a device that the government installed and maintained to be used to monitor the underground commerce of women as they worked through aspects of financial and social inequality? Is consensual adult entertainment a form of white slavery? Do economic realities bend and fatten the definitions of consensual? Considering it is a federal crime, with twenty possible years as the penalty, and complete seizure of assets, the Mann Act may have proven itself to be a law against modern women, and not for them. Often, it is now used in affiliation with RICO to add charges in an effort to create plea bargain deals when individuals or syndicates run advertisements via legal means for escorts, in what has become a gray area for the government to control. Sadly, when genuine acts of modern sexual abduction and slavery do occur, the dynamics are often beyond the boundaries of the Mann Act. The recent uprise of international cyber-related sexual crime is a perfect example.##

Ms. Dante (c) Mike Lynch Photo Philadelphia

Author’s Note: Thank you SWOP Behind Bars (SBB) for your support of my 2003 senior study discussion on feminism, consensual sex work, forced prostitution during armed conflict and human trafficking. This segment on Sex in American Law is part of a larger body of work privately archived with Goddard College.