Criminalizing Seduction: Prostitution, Moral Reform and the New York Anti-Seduction Law of 1848
In 1848, the New York legislature passed the Anti-Seduction Act, making it a crime to "under promise of marriage seduce any unmarried female of previous chaste character." This law, aimed primarily at discouraging premarital sex and prostitution, was the product of a ten-year campaign by the New York Female Moral Reform Society (NYFMRS), an evangelical women's movement. Although the NYFMRS for the most part espoused conservative theology, by daring to talk openly about sexual matters and by attacking the moral double standard entrenched in American culture of the period, its female members were at the same time quite radical for their day.
The impetus for the law resulted from the growing visibility of prostitution within New York City during the early 1800s. Previously relegated to only a small section of the city, prostitution slowly expanded into more respectable neighborhoods in conjunction with the city's rapid and largely unregulated growth. Classes of prostitutes soon developed, with exclusive parlor house prostitutes catering discreetly to their wealthy clients. Streetwalkers occupied the middle class of the "whorearchy," often including women who worked in more respectable industries but were unable to survive on their primary employment alone due to the low wages paid for female work. The final and lowest class of prostitutes was usually comprised of working class women forced to prostitute in order to survive in the slums.
The increasing publicity given to prostitution in New York City eventually led to a backlash by more conservative members of society. The lives and deaths of the glamorous parlor house prostitutes soon became fodder for the emerging penny press, especially with the brutal murder of glamorous parlor house prostitute Helen Jewett in 1836. Religious conservatives grew increasingly dismayed at the perceived increase in immorality within society, especially with the advent of the "sporting male" mindset among males of all classes during the 1820s and 1830s. Stressing the "natural needs" of man, such men strongly defended their right to engage in many forms of "immoral" activities, such as drinking, gambling, and the illicit sex that prostitution afforded.
At the same time that prostitution was flourishing in New York City, an evangelical movement began within some Calvinist congregations. Fostered by changes in theology that placed greater emphasis on the possibility of salvation for all, evangelicals felt it was their duty to actively "save" people they viewed as immoral. Because they realized that many prostitutes were forced into the profession by sheer poverty and not choice (unlike other perceived vices such as gambling), in addition to wearing the lifelong stigma of their trade due to the prevailing moral double standard, many evangelicals viewed prostitutes as a unique group particularly in need of redemption and assistance.
In 1830, John McDowall and several other ministers founded the short-lived Magdalen Society, providing asylum services to prostitutes sincerely wanting to live a more moral life. However, it and its successor the New York Female Benevolent Society were largely unsuccessful in converting many-street hardened New York prostitutes to what they considered virtuous citizens.
The all-female NYFMRS was formed in the mid 1830s, led by a group of Presbyterian migrants to the city from the far more conservative countryside. Unlike its predecessors, the NYFMRS focused on the prevention of prostitution instead of reclamation of prostitutes as it thought prevention of vice would be more effective in the long run. Frustrated with slow progress in changing society's attitudes, it decided to espouse a more coercive route and initiated a petition campaign calling for the New York legislature to enact an anti-seduction law to protect unmarried women from lecherous men intent on seducing the women into giving up their virginity with false promises of marriage. Due to the prevailing religious climate of the mid-1800s, the NYFMRS believed that once "seduced" the abandoned and now-unmarriageable women had few other choices but to resort to prostitution. Through its magazine, the Advocate of Moral Reform, the NYFMRS publicized its legislative campaign along with exposing the sexual double standard which rewarded men for promiscuity while socially penalizing women who dared to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. Gradually gaining in political savvy over time, the NYFMRS finally received legislative approval of its anti-seduction bill in 1848.
Although the anti-seduction law was very difficult to enforce and was eventually repealed in 1935 as outdated, it nevertheless represents a significant victory for the female members of the NYFMRS. By standing up to the double standard these early activists were able to influence the way society viewed women's morality – their ultimate goal.
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