Prostitution is referred to as the world’s oldest profession. Although in every society the attitudes towards this profession varies greatly and ranges from tolerance to execution of the sex workers, a review of American history reveals that the criminalization of prostitution in the U.S. was adopted to protect victims of the so called “white-slavery.” At least for the last centaury, prostitution in the U.S. has been largely equated to sexual slavery. It is the position of this paper that the association of prostitution with sexual slavery is ethically wrong and has resulted in the depravation of liberty of those who choose sex work as a profession.
Anti-sex-work movement in the U.S. began when the moral panic about the so called “white-slavery” started. In 1907, George Kibbe a journalist for McClure’s Magazine wrote an article warning Americans about the spread of “white slavery” (Matsubara 2006). Kibbe argued that the offenders of these sinful crimes were among the new European immigrants. The author emphasized that the “white” women involved were not merely sex workers, but innocent victims, who were deceived, abducted, raped and ultimately forced to sexual slavery.
Following the article by George Kibbe, other works of literature, films and plays continued to be produced about white-slavery and prostitution and quite quickly resulted in a moral panic. In 1910, by passing the Mann Act, the U.S. Congress made the interstate transportation of women and girls “for the purpose of prostitution and debauchery” a federal crime (cited in Saunders 2005: 346). In 1914 alone, more than 70 percent of convictions under the Mann Act were in regards with the voluntary movement of women, for prostitution and other “immoral purposes” (Ibid.).
Eventually the white slavery panic became global. The scope of this hysteria in the U.S. as well as Europe has been widely documented (Doezema 2000; Matsubara 2006; Saunders 2005). During this period, some international organization began focusing on the issue of combating “white slavery.” Proposal made in the League of Nations for eradicating this practice included, banning women from traveling alone, special passport conditions, forcing prostitutes to return to their original country, and raising the age of consent to 21 (Saunders 2005). Such measures were adopted in Europe, North America, Asia, and Latin America (Ibid.).
However, contemporary researchers have questioned the scope of “white slavery.” Recent studies suggest that the actual numbers of “white slaves” were much fewer than what was argued at the time and “for the most part [white slavery panic] was based on a retelling of a cultural myth” (cited in Doezema 2000: 26). In this regard, Frederick Grittner, in his analysis of the “white slavery,” defines myth not only as false but also “a collective belief that simplifies reality” (cited in Ibid). Grittner emphasizes that the history of “white slavery” clearly demonstrates a case of a false and collective belief.
There have been different accounts for why narratives about “white-slavery” caused such hysteria in the American society. One possible explanation could be that, defining white prostitutes as “white slaves,” prevented them from being viewed as immoral (white) sexual beings. Rather, it presented white prostitutes as innocent, meaning non-sexual, victims. In the climate of the times, the white middle class society could not accept that some white women may voluntary take prostitution as a profession; since so much of the white womanhood was dependent on her innocence, therefore these women must have been forced to prostitution. The emphasis on the whiteness of these supposed sexual slaves shows how threatened the society was by the image that white sex workers presented. The emphasis on their whiteness also clearly excluded black women, who were assumed to have mature and deviant sexualities, from being victims of this sexual “slavery.”
In The 1910s Anti-Prostitution Movement, Matsubara offers some other explanations for the hysteria (2006). He argues that fear of newcomers and the anti-immigration sentiments of the time, presented it self in form of sexual fear. The author also emphasizes that given the social climate of the time “the forced sex labor of white women appeared to be the worst nightmare, or the reality, in the post-emancipation era” (Ibid.: 57). During this time, the American society was panicked that white women would replace black men (and women) as slaves. Another interesting issue that Matsubara points out to is women’s increasing demand for autonomy and the suffrage movement during this period. Since women at that point, less than ten years before they obtained the right to vote, could not vote on the bases of protection from the men in their lives, men’s sense of responsibility to defend their supposedly weak daughters and wives was heightened (Ibid). By attempting to demonstrate how their protection is essential for stopping the “white slavery,” men had an opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of their protection and therefore, reestablish their argument for denying women the right to vote.
Today, there is evidence that the myth of white slavery has continued and has led to concerns about “trafficking in women” (Doezema 2000). As with “white slavery,” it appears that the numerous reports, academic papers, internet sites, national and international regulation that are established in regards with “trafficking in women” are in fact a response to a relatively few number of cases (Ibid). In Loose Women or Lost Women, Joe Doezema argues there are several reasons to question the actual extent of “trafficking in women.” According to the author, the first problem is that the evidence that is usually offered in support of the “trafficking” claim is from “unrevealed or unverifiable sources” (32). In this regard, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) which has undertaken an extensive investigations about the subject, stresses that “finding reliable statistics on the extent of trafficking in women … [is] virtually impossible” (cited in Ibid.). The GATTW argues this difficulty is partly due to the illegality of prostitution.
The second issue that is raised in connection to how accurate “trafficking” statistics are is the definition that is given to “trafficking.” According to GAATW the “trafficking” statistics that are available, “usually refer to the numbers of migrant or domestic sex workers, rather than” cases of what one might assume “trafficking” is: forced migrations (Ibid). Nevertheless, usually the statistics that are offered for “trafficking” vary greatly. For example, according to the statistics available in Asia for the city of Bombay, the numbers of sexual slaves and prostitutes range from, 100,000 to 600,000. “Such discrepancies should be cause for extreme suspicion of the reliability of the research, yet when it comes to sex work and prostitution, few eyebrows are raised and the figures are easily bandied about without question” (cited in Ibid.).
Last but not least, there are indications that sex workers, rather than sexual slaves make up the majority of this “trafficking.” In their investigation, GAATW found the majority of “trafficking” case involve women who know they are going to work in the sex industry, but are deceived about their working conditions. GAATW also emphasizes that abductions for the purpose of sexual slavery are “rare.”
By reviewing the debates about “trafficking in women” it becomes clear that various groups define this concept very differently. For example, GAATW describes “trafficking in women” as any form of forced labor, as well as coerced prostitution. However, organizations such as GAATW do not include prostitution by choice in their definition of “trafficking” and in general support sex work as a form of labor (Saunders 2005). On the other hand, abolitionists such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), include prostitution in their vision on “trafficking.” They argue “prostitution victimizes all women, justifies the sale of any woman, and reduces all women to sex” (emphases added cited in Doezema 2000: 33). Organizations such as CATW, believe there is no such a thing as “voluntary” prostitution. Thus, “trafficking in women,” for abolitionists, includes migrant sex workers as well.
The language that abolitionists use in expressing their opposition to prostitution is, in many respects, very similar to the language used during the “white slavery” panic. Most significantly, abolitionists now, like anti-prostitution activists during “white slavery,” do not distinguish between two essentially different groups of people: those who are forced to, what can only be described as, slavery, and those who voluntarily choose a profession that is perceived deviant by some. There is no doubt that sexual slavery, like any other form of slavery, is ethically indefensible and John Stuart Mill’s harm principle clearly establishes its moral bankruptcy. However, since criminalizing prostitution deprives sex workers their liberty, there is room to review whether there is any ethical basis for this deprivation of liberty.
There are usually two different types of argument in opposition to legalizing prostitution. There are those who believe prostitution is simply unethical and against religious beliefs. They take an oppositional stance in regards to this decriminalization. The first and foremost response to this argument is that the deep sense of freedom of religion provided by the First Amendment means that a secular society should not simply put people’s version of “sin” into penal statutes unless, they fall under broadly accepted mala-in-se  offenses.
If the First Amendment is not reason enough (which apparently for some is not), there are many acts which are considered unethical and still, those who practice them are not held criminally liable. For example most people believe adultery is immoral, but those who cheat on their spouses don’t (or at least no longer) suffer legal consequences. The reason for this is while society considers infidelity immoral; it has decided it is a private matter that should not be interfered with by the government. Another interesting act that is considered unethical, yet legal in many states, is acting in pornographic movies. The natural question that is raised from comparing the legal status of prostitution and pornography in the U. S. is: while having sex for money in front of a camera is legal, why should it be illegal without a camera?
Another point raised against those who oppose legalizing prostitution on ethical bases is that everyone trades something about their body to make a living. Why should there be any difference between a typist who uses his/her hand to make a living and a sex worker who uses his/her sexual organ to do so? Anti-prostitution activists argue that there is something unique and exceptional about sex and sexual organs; and that one’s sexual organs should be treated with more dignity. However, this argument can be used for other human qualities as well, such as mind and talent. People’s minds and thoughts are unique and in many respects exceptional. CEOs, lawyers, and other professionals use their talent every day in order to make a living and help others with their needs. Why should prostitution be any different?
There are still those who argue against prostitution because they believe people shouldn’t have to sell their bodies to make a living. This group argues there is no such thing as prostitution by choice. Diane Post who is a feminist and an attorney, believes “all choices open to women are circumscribed by the oppression under we live” (1999: 8). She continues by saying: “yes, I choose to be an attorney working on issues of violence against women. But if I truly had a choice, I would not need to do this profession or this topic because there would be no violence against women and I would not need to do this work” (Ibid.).
There is no doubt that there are some people who become sex workers because they don’t have better options. Without a doubt, government and society have a responsibility to attempt to provide people with enough opportunities so they would have more options to choose from. It is certainly true that no one should be forced to sell her/his body in order to make a living. At the same time, it is also true that no one should be forced to join the military and risk his/her life because it is the best option available. However, we have not made voluntarily military enlistment illegal because some might join due to their social position.
Furthermore, establishing that some people choose a profession due to lack of better opportunities, does not mean anyone who chooses that profession does not have other options. There are people who choose to become prostitutes. Sex workers such as Veronica Monet (who is also a member of COYOTE: Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), emphasize that the truth for “many sex workers … is that we chose sex work for money, independence, freedom and dignity” (1994).
Another major claim that people use against decriminalizing prostitution is based on health issues. Opponents argue that prostitution facilitates a more rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD). Yet, the emphases should be that criminalized and unregulated prostitution spread diseases. In State-Sanctioned Sex, authors Brents and Hausbeck point out that in 1988, Nevada — the only state in the U.S. were prostitution is decriminalized — had about 5,000 cases of gonorrhea and only 9 of these were from legal brothels (2001). The authors also point out that from the 7,000 tests that were conducted between 1982 and 1989 on 246 prostitutes, there were only 2 cases of syphilis and 19 cases of gonorrhea, all of which were reportedly contracted before the implementation of Nevada’s mandatory condom law (Ibid.). The case study of brothels in Nevada clearly demonstrates that if anything legalized and regulated prostitution prevents the spread of STDs.
“In 1985 the Nevada Administrative Code imposed stringent health testing on working prostitutes to control sexually transmitted diseases … The code mandates that each person applying for employment as a prostitute must submit a blood sample to test for HIV and syphilis and a cervical specimen to test for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Every prostitute must have a state health card certifying that she is disease-free before being hired at a brothel and granted a work card. Once hired, the code mandates weekly PAP smears for gonorrhea and chlamydia and monthly blood tests for syphilis and HIV. Prostitutes are checked weekly, sometimes in-house by a local physician and sometimes by a physician of their choice. If a prostitute tests positive for anything other than HIV, she is unable to work until the treatment cures her and the physician reinstates her health card. If she tests positive for HIV, a 1987 law makes it a felony to continue work as a brothel prostitute … Brothels are required to post a sign saying condoms must be used. All of the working women we interviewed reported that they support the condom laws. Contracting any STD is detrimental both from a health perspective and from a financial standpoint because the women lose work time while recuperating. As a result of these laws, according to the Nevada Department of Health, not one licensed prostitute has contracted HIV in a Nevada brothel since the testing regime was instituted” (emphases added, Ibid.: 314)
Not all abolitionists base their opposition on the grounds of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. There are some who argue against decriminalizing prostitution based on what they perceive to be emotional and psychological hazards of the profession. While sex for money might be a business with peculiar emotional implications, such concerns are beyond the scope of the law. After all, even if these speculations are true, prostitution wouldn’t be the only profession that has psychological implications. Many other professionals such as doctors (specially those treating young children) are advised to see a therapist on a regular basis.
The obvious hazards of prostitution are caused by criminalization of the profession. While the number of unreported cases of violence against sex workers are unknown (and in many statistics, in respect to this issue, are unreliable), in a sample of clients from a sex worker clinic in San Francisco, 53% had experienced past or current occupational violence including 32% by customers, 20% from employers and 15% by police (as cited in Prostitution in the United States). It seems obvious that the main reason for the great deal of abuse that sex workers experience is the climate of criminality. Understandably, it is extremely difficult for those who practice an illegal act to report the work hazards that come along with the occupation.
At the same time, some suggest that those who choose to practice a criminal act should accept all consequences of their actions, including violence. In regards to some criminal acts (such as robbery, drug trafficking or murder) this claim might be true. However, prostitution should not be included alongside such cases. The few times that sex workers have reported incidents of violence against them and the cases have gone to the court, jurors have found that violence against prostitutes are unacceptable. In one of these cases Senator John Kerry was the prosecutor. He argued while prostitution is illegal, like any other profession, it has limits and boundaries and even someone who sells her sexual services has the right to say no. The jury agreed, and the rapist was sentenced to eighteen to thirty years in prison (Toobin). This case, also begs the question: If prostitutes have the right to say no to sexual advances why shouldn’t they have right to say yes? Furthermore, if the sexual relations between consenting adults are beyond the scope of the law, why should the fact that they exchange money, change this matter?
Criminalizing prostitution has not only failed to prevent sexual slavery (as it was hoped), but it has also led to the victimization of others — those who are not sexual slaves. Undoubtedly, legalizing and regulating prostitution is not going to completely stop the abuse, violence and corruption tied to this profession. However it would lessen it, as the repeal of alcohol prohibition did. While there are still many people in this county who don’t drink alcohol, when was the last time we heard a Budweiser dealer being killed simply because he chose to sell alcohol?
Mahdiyeh Javid is a junior in Women's Studies at American University, Washington, DC. This paper was written for a class.
Works Cited Brents, Barbara G. and Kathryn Hausbeck. 2001. “State-Sanctioned Sex: Negotiating Formal and Informal regulatory Practices in Nevada Brothels,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 44, No. 3, 307-332.
Doezeman, Jo. 2000. “Loose women or lost women? The re-emergence of the myth of white slavery in contemporary discourses of trafficking in women,” Gender Issues, Vol. 18, No. 1, 23-51.
Monet, Veronica. 1994. “Sex Worker and Incest Survivor: A Healthy Choice?,” Gauntlet, Vol. 1.
Post, Diane. 1999. “Legalizing prostitution: A systematic rebuttal,” Off our backs, Vol. 92, No. 7, 8-10.
“Prostitution in the United States: The Statistics.” Prostitutes Education Network. Retrieved May 5, 2007. (bayswan.org)
Matsubara, Hiroyuki. 2006. “The 1910s Anti-Prostitution Movement and the Transformation of American Political Culture,” The Japanese Journal of American Studies, No. 17, 53-69.
Saunders, Penelope. 2005. “Traffic Violations: Determining the Meaning of Violence in Sexual Trafficking Versus Sex Work,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 20, No. 3, 343-360.
Toobin, Jeffery. 2004. “Kerry’s Trials: What the candidate learned as a lawyer.” The New Yorker. Retrieved May 5, 2007. (newyorker.com)
 Mala-in-se offenses are acts that are wrong in themselves regardless of whether they are illegal or not. Such offenses include: murder, robbery, arson and etc.