FOSTA/SESTA echoes Progressive Era anti-vice campaigns—and that’s not a good thing

Congress recently passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), and critics argue that the legislation will put both sex workers and sex trafficking victims at risk. Even before the bill has become law, Craigslist responded by shutting down its personals section and a Kindle policy change sparked fears about the de facto suppression of erotica.

“North Clark Street’s Fight Against Vice,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 4, 1898

FOSTA/SESTA harkens back to Progressive Era reformers who routinely conflated sex work with sex trafficking in their cries against “white slavery.” One of the driving narratives of anti-vice crusades, “white slavery” proposed that corrupt urban men seduced white women into sexual impropriety, ultimately trapping women in a life of prostitution. White slavery rhetoric drew on strains of abolitionist language that elevated reformers to white saviors of a weaker population. Notably, fears of white slavery eschewed any concern for women of color participating in commercial sex. Additionally, while some women may have felt trapped or deceived into prostitution, the white slavery narrative ignored the agency and economic choices of women forging tenuous lives in an industrializing city.[1]

After all, an industrial job might pay a woman six dollars per day—hardly enough to sustain a living. Meanwhile, prostitution offered a potentially more lucrative source of income, in which a woman could earn more than four times what she would earn in a factory job. May Holland once testified to Chicago’s city council, “I do not believe girls can exist on less than $10 or $12 a week.”[2] She asserted that prostitution offered one of the few ways for women like her to survive. To make ends meet, some women worked as prostitutes on a temporary or part-time basis, while others made a career out of commercial sex. Although women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power as they presided over a decentralized city economy.

Into the early twentieth century, municipal reformers, women reformers, and ministers tried to dismantle the power of ward bosses by targeting women in public. In 1912, Chicago passed “Rules Governing Regulation of Vice,” which included eliminating outdoor signage in red light districts, restricting street soliciting, and removing “swinging doors that permit of easy access or a view of the interior.” The statute also declared “no women without male escorts shall be permitted in a saloon” and that “short skirts, transparent gowns, and other improper attire shall not be permitted in the parlors or public rooms.”[3] Controlling women’s behavior, dress, and mobility in public and semi-public spaces functioned as a strategy to weaken the power of a broader political economy.

Controlling women’s behavior, dress, and mobility in public and semi-public spaces functioned as a strategy to weaken the power of a broader political economy.

Another common strategy among anti-vice reformers: closing brothels. For example, after the Illinois Supreme Court allowed the Hyde Park Protective Association to secure an injunction against a saloon in their neighborhood, the Chicago Law and Order League attempted to accomplish the same against a house of prostitution on Armour Avenue. After their success, the League and other reform organizations worked together to try to pass an injunction and abatement law in the state legislature. The effort failed in 1910 and then again in 1913. In 1915, with the added support of women reformers like Harriet Vittum and Dr. Effa V. Davis, the state legislature finally passed the law.[4] For all of reformers’ concern for victimized women, they rarely considered the aftermath women faced after losing their homes. Instead, reformers celebrated the closing of houses of prostitution as a victory for a cleaner, more moral city.

In their zeal, reformers failed to differentiated between women’s leisure, nonsexual labor, and sexual labor on the streets, in saloons, or at brothels. Instead, reformers exclusively documented women in terms of impropriety. Self-appointed morals inspectors or those working for organizations like the Vice Commission, the Committee of Fifteen, and the Law and Order League discussed prostitution as an identity rather than an occupation. While the line between work and play certainly blurred for many women, prostitution nevertheless functioned as a source of income. Furthermore, displays of transgressive femininity like drinking unaccompanied in a saloon did not always directly correspond to sexual labor. By conflating the two, moral and municipal reformers branded an entire economy as “vice,” women in public as prostitutes, and disguised the political and economic dynamics of their morality campaign.

Although consistently contested through the turn of the century, reformers’ actions substantially altered the urban landscape so that the sex work economy of the late nineteenth century city visibly disappeared. Into the 1920s, a more masculine underground economy emerged that looked very different from one in which women played a critical and public role.

Reform efforts need to be pursued in alliance with workers to better identify and reduce sex trafficking.

Like many Progressive Era reformers, supporters of FOSTA/SESTA often have good intentions to protect women and prevent coerced labor. However, targeting a robust economy–whether online or in an industrializing city–often risks harming the most vulnerable who are trying to make a living.  Reform efforts need to be pursued in alliance with workers to better identify and reduce sex trafficking, more precisely parsing out how the mechanisms of forced labor differ from consensual sex work. Additionally, this work needs to be done in coordination with a broader effort to address the structural problems of capitalism. It matters that May Holland could make more money through prostitution than in a factory in 1913. Similarly, we need to address how women struggle to make ends meet today through minimum wage jobs and the gig economy, with limited access to healthcare, maternal support, and employee benefits.

This blog post utilizes research and excerpts from the author’s PhD dissertation, She Shot Him Dead: The Criminalization of Women and the Struggle over Social Order in Chicago, 1871-1919.”

[1] For more on white slavery, see Cynthia Blair, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010); Mara L. Keire, For Business & Pleasure Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890-1933 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); Kevin J. Mumford, Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); Sharon E. Wood, The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[2] “Plans National Crusade on Vice,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 1913.

[3] Arthur B. Farwell Papers, “Rules Governing Regulation of Vice, 1912,” Chicago History Museum, Box 2, Folder 4.

[4] Annual Report of the Chicago Committee of Fifteen, 1911-1920, Chicago History Museum; Arthur B. Farwell Papers, Chicago Law and Order League to Chicago Council of Social Agencies, February 16, 1924, Chicago History Museum, Box 1, Folder 5.

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