Prostitution in the Progressive Era: Reform Movements in Three Jurisdictions
Prostitution usually produces some form of moral indignation. History has seen many diverse, unsuccessful efforts to eliminate the ancient profession. In the early 1900s a myriad of reform groups with different, often conflicting, agendas took their turns at regulating prostitution. Baltimore, Houston, and New York each took somewhat different approaches to the problem.
During the Progressive Era, the white slave trade was a central concern of reformers. Although most prostitutes were native born, many people believed that pimps imported women into the United States and sold them into prostitution. The anti-prostitution movement may have been a manifestation of fears about immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and decay of the traditional moral order. Concerns about prostitution may also have arisen as a response low wages for women, police complicity in the sex trade, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Progressive reformers were intent on studying social ills in order to find "cures." In 1900, the Committee of Fourteen investigated prostitution and published the first of many vice reports. Across the country, reformers battled over how to deal with prostitution--whether to abolish or regulate it.
During the early 1900s states passed a large variety of statutes dealing with prostitution and bawdy houses, and a body of judge-made common law developed. Disorderly house, vagrancy, and nuisance laws were used to combat prostitution. Reformers believed that the presence of disorderly houses established a milieu allowing for mass commission of illegal and immoral acts.
Baltimore dealt with prostitution indirectly by passing acts penalizing brothel owners. In 1920 the law was amended to incorporate the common law definition of nuisance, a broader basis for regulation than the criminal code's definition of prostitution as the exchange of sex for money. The new law, an outgrowth of a 1915 vice report revealing that many prominent, married men frequented brothels, punished owners, prostitutes, and their clients.
Houston's prostitution laws indicated how small cities dealt with the issue. Until 1907 Houston handled prostitution with tolerance and informal police control. Houses of prostitution were clustered together and operated openly. Prostitutes and brothel owners expected to be charged with vagrancy and running disorderly houses on occasion. The accommodation was evident in a 1907 ordinance permitting any citizen to sue to enjoin a brothel unless it was located in a municipally authorized vice district. This statute appeased both sides of the prostitution debate: prostitutes and brothel owners were both prosecuted and regulated. Growing social distaste for prostitution, however, gradually undid the compromise. Within ten days after the law passed, people had sued to enjoin bawdy houses. Houston established a red-light district in 1908, but disorderly house owners and prostitutes were still subject to prosecution. In 1917, social pressures forced the red-light district to close, pushing prostitution underground.
In the late 1800s New York City regulated brothels as common nuisances, but the laws were not well enforced and, as in Houston, prostitutes expected to be arrested occasionally. The Committee of Fourteen thought solicitation laws should apply to prostitutes and the men who bought their services, but society was not ready to punish men for engaging in the sex trade. The sporadic enforcement system was applied unequally. As pressure grew to reduce prostitution, New York became the first city to use entrapment to catch prostitutes, impose indeterminate sentences for three-time offenders, and to use fingerprinting to convict recidivists. Many of the reformers hoped that pursuing prostitutes would lead to their rehabilitation. Reformers believed that prostitutes would mend their ways if taught morals. No woman, they thought, voluntarily chose to be a prostitute. Rehabilitation could protect women from the evils of the sex trade.
Progressive efforts stigmatized prostitutes but failed to eliminate the trade. Instead, the reforms forced prostitution underground, only to see it re-emerge later.
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