The World'S Oldest Profession In U. S History
The United States has had a long and involved history with prostitution. Remnants of how prostitutes were viewed were retained from the Renaissance era. However, women remained ill-content to sit back and continue to depend financially on men. The story of prostitution in the U. S starts with the exciting history of the Wild West.
Prostitution, though frowned upon, remained a fact of life. The industrial revolution brought a greater chance of both wealth and mobility. Cities expanded as the concept of Manifest Destiny swept the nation. Those looking for wealth, fame, land, or adventure had the chance to head West. Men were not the only ones longing for adventure and prestige. Boyle explains, “Although prostitution was largely illegal, brothels were no secret in the old west” (1). There was even a lengthy printed guide called the “1895 Travelers’ Guide of Colarado” that detailed the location and descriptions of brothels (Boyle, 1). Officially illegal, but thriving under the radar, towns popped up where prostitutes set up shop. McNeill suggests, “In many Western frontier towns [prostitutes] were virtually the only women to be found, and so many of the early female inhabitants of New Orleans were prostitutes that when a priest suggested to one of the first governors of Louisiana that he banish all ‘disreputable women’, the governor replied, ‘If I send away all the loose females, there will be no women left here at all. ‘” (McNeill, 1). The importance of prostitution to settling the West cannot be overstated; “If we see women’s contributions to settling the West as nothing more than dependent mates to men, we fail to see the complex woman that [a prostitute] represents” (Women and the Myth, 1).
The battle continued between whether prostitution was moral or immoral; but the fact remained that prostitutes provided a service that was often seen as beneficial to developing cities. Laws and regulations were passed at the federal or state level, but individual states, cities, or municipalities were willing to turn a blind eye to the ‘illegal’ activity. In various states in the 20th century committees and boards were put together to attempt to answer what should be done about prostitution. New York City’s Committee of Fifteen came to the conclusion that “Either license or segregation condemns whole neighbourhoods” in November of 1900 (Committee of Fifteen, 1). The Chicago Vice Commission in March of 1910 came to a similar conclusion, but they believed the fault lied with those who sought the company of prostitutes, rather than the prostitutes themselves (Chicago Vice Commission, 1). The Mann Act was passed federally in June of 1910, and it stated it’s purpose was: “To further regulate interstate commerce and foreign commerce by prohibiting the transportation therein for immoral purposes of women and girls, and for other purposes” (The Mann Act, 1). The Mann Act was also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, and it brought the U. S to the conclusion that prostitutes were all coerced into their profession (McNeill, 1). It was otherwise unimaginable that women would desire autonomy and then actively seek it through sex.
Women wanted opportunity, and they were determined to find it. They ran brothels in growing cities, and made the journey to the West alone. Prostitutes became part of the foundation for the growing U. S; some of their contributions lost to history. The view of prostitutes did not much change until the passing of the Mann Act, which once again painted them as helpless damsels in need of saving. The view of being helpless is what led many into prostitution in the first place, and the question of what to do about prostitution remains.
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