On Prostitution

In 1917, the legal prostitution district of New Orleans, the infamous “Storyville“, was shut down over the strong objections of the city by the Federal government.  In response, New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman said “You can make [prostitution] illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”

The Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, recently demonstrated that ninety years of nearly universal prohibition of prostitution in this country has done nothing to make Behrman’s prophecy untrue.

The movement for prohibition of sex for pay in the United States began with many of the same people who mounted the campaign for the prohibition of alcohol.  After the civil war, the religious temperance movement moved away from the notion of temperance (meaning the voluntary abstention from harmful things originally espoused by the Greek philosopher Xenophon) and began to agitate for the prohibition of alcohol.  Among the groups founded at this time was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.  This organization became strongest in Chicago, where Matilda Bradley Carse was President of the chapter.

Out of this movement, at the end of the 1800s, the National Purity Congress emerged.  This movement was dedicated to the abolition of legal prostitution in the United States. A goal which was realized in nearly all American states and territories from 1910 to 1915.  Among the leaders of the National Purity Congress was Mrs. Charlton Edholm, a missionary of the WCTU and sometime journalist, who ran for office in California on the Prohibition Party ticket and lost in 1902.  Three years earlier, Edholm was among the first to “report” about the phenomena of “white slavery”.

There is a slave trade in this country, and it is not black folks at this time, but little white girls – thirteen, fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen years of age – and they are snatched out of our arms, and from our Sabbath schools and from our Communion tables.

Scant though the evidence of this trade in “little white girls” was at the time, the story began to build in the public conciousness.  Chicago’s State Attorney, Clifford Roe, was outspoken for years about white slavery.  His first two widely publicized attempts to make a white slavery case fell apart when the allegations of the victims turned out to be fabrications, but in 1909, he finally found a case, that of one Ms. Sarah Joseph, which could be proven in court.  The Joseph case garnered national publicity, helping elevate Roe to the office of Assistant Attorney General.  Off the publicity and outrage garnered by the Joseph Case, Illinois Republican James R. Mann sponsored the United States White-Slave Traffic Act, now know as the Mann Act (which is one of the laws Gov. Spitzer allegedly violated), which was signed into law by President Taft in 1910.  The Mann Act forbade the transportation of individuals from one state to another for the purpose of prostitution (it also was the law which first authorized and funded the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and was the first step towards the outright prohibition of prostitution which would sweep the United States over the next half decade.

The Mann Act was among many victories for the Temperance movement during this period; during the two decades at the beginning of the 20th Century, laws prohibiting prostitution, the use of opiates, and eventually alcohol prohibition, swept the nation.  As is now widely known, none of these forms of prohibition succeeded in mitigating the proscribed activities.  Mayor Behrman’s prediction has been established as fact many upon many times over.

Yet, unlike alcohol prohibition, prohibition of prostitution has remained in effect in nearly every place in the United States.  And while the fears of sex slavery which spawned the Mann Act still are commonplace, there remains scant evidence of their basis in fact.

Indeed, while we continue to be warned of the danger of sex trafficking, an increase in taxpayer funded attempts to combat it are finding little to combat.  In 1999, the CIA reported that an estimated 50,000 women are trafficked for sex each year in the United States.  We now are learning that after spending $150 million on task forces and grants since 2000, the federal government had identified only 1,362 victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. The Washington Post reported that the original CIA estimate was the work of one analyst, who relied mainly on news clippings about overseas trafficking cases, from which she attempted to estimate U.S. victims.  And worse yet, Congress is proposing to increase the funding to combat trafficking.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) has sponsored H.R. 3887, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  This bill will increase the funding for combating trafficking to $872 million over four years.  It also removes language requiring evidence of fraud, force, or coercion to convict a person of trafficking under federal law, making any person convicted eligible for a miminum of 20 years in Federal prison.  Yet Steven Wagner, former head of the anti-trafficking program of the Department for Health and Human Services, has stated that this is unneeded.  “”Many of the organizations that received grants didn’t really have to do anything,” he told The Washington Post last fall. “They were available to help victims. There weren’t any victims.”

It should seem obvious that Lantos’ bill is bad to Democrats.  Government programs spending over $100,000 for each victim helped do not need simply more money; a regime of mandatory minimums which has overstuffed our prisons and made our justice system less just does not need to be fed with another ill-defined crime.  But further, ramping up the punishment will not and has not helped us make prostitution unpopular, and the evidence is now indisputable that such punishment schemes hurt those they are supposedly aimed at helping: women caught up in the sex trade.

A landmark study of prostitution co-authored by acclaimed economist (and co-author of bestseller Freakonomics) Steven Levitt has established that America’s prohibition regime has made it both more profitable and safer for prostitutes to be under the thumb of a pimp.  Sweden’s vaunted supply side attempt to stem prostitution has made prostitution more dangerous for those involved in it.

We have the opportunity to help find a better way.  A moving example from Mumbai shows us just how much can be achieved through ending prohibition.  The simple act of offering banking services to prostitutes there has enabled them to open savings accounts.  This basic ability, which all of us take for granted but which is denied to prostitutes in America due to their inability to legitimately use their earnings, allows them, among other things, the ability to be more choosy with what practices they engage in.  They are more likely to require condoms, which helps prevent the spread of HIV, helping protect both the prostitutes themselves and the public health.  These are real, tangible benefits, come into being by simply allowing prostitutes to have bank accounts.  Something which will of course become even less likely should we ramp up the legal penalties for those in the sex trade.

It is long past time for us to examine the assorted prejudices, lies, and myths which led to our failed century of attempting to make prostitution unpopular through prohibition, and long past time for us to ask ourselves honestly what we can do that will help the most vulnerable among us.


  1. …I hope this will inspire you to join me in opposing Lantos’ bill, and in letting our Democratic party know that this sort of legislation is not what we seek from them.

  2. dealing w/2 gigs and job search today but logged in just to hit “recommend” on this.  Issues which people agree on and generally cheer for are easy; issues which require championing the shamed, the abused, and the marginalized (and which open the poster up to particular kinds of grief) are hard.  To provide a neat historical context is even cooler.  Thank you for writing this (once again).

Comments have been disabled.