A Very Brief Overview of American Anti-Sex Trafficking Laws’ Racist History

by Jesse Dekel

Reluctantly talk to any proponent of SESTA/FOSTA, and you can hear how moralistic discourse represents sex workers as precarious, agentless victims. This narrative has come out of sex trafficking discourse, to the extent that these arguments render “sex work” and “sex trafficking” as one of the same, which consequently creates a self-perpetuating problem wherein moral arguments by reactionaries with Christian Missionary savior complexes.  The “agentless victim of sex trafficking” narrative further deconstructs the notion of sex work as a legitimate form of labor, which in turn also reinforces these moral arguments. It is difficult to understand why sex work and sex trafficking are confused with each other, but looking at the social and judicial history of sex trafficking laws provides a lot of explanation.

A red umbrella held up reads "SEX WORK IS WORK"

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The history of the concept of “sexual slavery” began during the Progressive Era in the United States. This coincided with the third wave of immigration that happened in the early 20th century, shortly after the Civil War, and after the passing of the 14th Amendment. Sex workers were represented as White American girls who were being forcibly trafficked by male pimps, who were in turn represented as black Americans and Jewish immigrants. White women were also portrayed as being drugged or otherwise coerced and forced to move to larger urban areas for sex work, and the narrative of “innocence” emerged as well as “White slavery” to describe this farcical phenomenon. The term made a distinction between “chattel slavery,” of whom the victims were people of color, and “White Slavery,” which was a more pressing concern because all White sex workers were ‘innocent’ and therefore worthy of protection.

This rhetoric also completely ignored how victims of sex slavery at this time were more likely to be Asian women. This is probably because White supremacy deems sexual violence towards Asian women was deemed far less of a human rights issue as they’re allegedly not innocent and civilized, but rather promiscuous and foreign.

The anti-sex work movement also coincided with the implementation of explicit and implicit anti-miscegenation laws, in which state officials could still practice racism below the Mason-Dixon line. One of the most famous being the Mann Act, aka the White-Slave Traffic Act which made it a felony to transport “any girl or woman for immoral purposes or prostitution between countries or across state lines.” Randal Kennedy writes in Race, Crime, and the Law that the Mann Act was used to soothe racist fears of black sexuality: “Proponents of the Mann Act constantly deployed the imagery of race to solidify support. They named ‘white women’ as the intended beneficiaries of the legislation. They also mobilized support by evoking the specter of purchased interracial sex.”

The Mann Act was used to convict people engaged in consensual interracial relationships, and the women were treated as criminals, forced to stand trial against their will. The infamous conviction of Black American boxer Jack Johnson led to a proposed anti-miscegenation amendment to the House of Representatives, as well as multiple laws that passed. In 2018, Johnson has been posthumously pardoned on the grounds that the conviction was (obviously) racially motivated.

White Slavery reformers were often suffragettes, Christian groups and social reformers, including the founder of social work Jane Addams. “White Slavery” began being amorphous in definition, any sort of “immoral” female sexuality from White women, was tacitly understood as being akin to sex work and slavery (particularly when the woman was involved with a person of color). Christian groups represented sex work as “immoral,” while many suffragettes and social workers regarded it as the exploitation of women. Jane Addams thought that opposition to “White Slavery” could be used to garner support for the suffragettes and introduce “social justice.” She said ‘‘it is quite possible that an … energetic attempt to abolish white slavery will bring many women into the equal suffrage movement.’’

Social work emerged and gained traction, with a goal of rescuing White sex workers. While this was happening, the social purity and social hygiene movements began working alongside moral reformers, first-wave feminists and social workers to develop laws regulating White Slavery and sex work. Jane Addams eventually became a vice president for the American Social Hygiene Association, and the ‘‘vigorous attention to social hygiene moved the prostitution debates out of the religious realm and into the realm of science and politics.’’ In other words, many of these movements that were heavily associated with segregation and Christian moralism aimed to change their focus from ending the “immoral” behavior of White sex workers to evidence-based research approaches with the intent to abolish sex work.

Social reformist O. Edward Janney remarked on this shift with ‘‘There are many social workers who should know the facts [of sex slavery], and [should] have presented to them methods by means of which they may assist in the suppression of the evil.’’ In short, the medicalized model that Victorian-era, Christian moralists used to condemn homosexuality and promote social purity was being reworked into diagnosing “feeblemindedness.” Social workers used this diagnosis to explicate sex work and provide evidence as to why sex workers should be ostracized.

It is clear from the history of anti-sex work and “White Slavery” that moral arguments have been heavily politicized around racist intent and Christian morality. These exact same moralistic arguments have been reworked into SESTA/FOSTA, without even a hint of change. And sex workers are the ones paying the price.

Works Cited:

Abel, Gillian M. “A Decade of Decriminalization: Sex Work ‘down under’ but Not Underground .” Sage Journals, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 14 Feb. 2014, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1748895814523024.

Bromfield, Nicole F. “Sex Slavery and Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States.” Sage Journals, Affilia, 15 Nov. 2015, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0886109915616437.

Janney, O. Edward. The White Slave Traffic in America. Microfilming Corporation of America, 1975.

Kennedy, Randall. Race, Crime, and the Law. Vintage, 1998.