Thursday, October 23, 2008

Regulating Prostitution, Past and Present

This November, San Francisco is voting on a proposition to decriminalize prostitution. I doubt it will pass. A similar effort failed pretty badly in Berkeley a couple of years ago. And if it fails in Berkeley, I'm not sure where it can pass. If anywhere, I guess it is San Francisco.

Decriminalization and regulation would do one very important thing: make prostitutes' lives safer. For that alone, the measure should pass.

Ruth Rosen, in her first-rate book on prostitution in the Progressive Era, The Lost Sisterhood, demonstrates that prostitution was a widely tolerated part of 19th century American society. This was not an entirely good thing of course (it had a lot to do with the sexual standard of Victorian America and few good job opportunities for women). But by the late 19th century, prostitution was regulated in many American cities. It was contained (only to some extent successful) within red light districts. Madams generally controlled the houses of prostitution. This kept women off the streets, making their lives significantly safer, if not exactly great.

But Progressive Era female reformers saw prostitution as the Social Evil that needed eradication. They weren't entirely wrong; the spread of venereal disease from prostitutes to them through their husbands was a major problem and chafing at the sexual double standard was quite reasonable. However, these reformers (as Progressives tended to be in my view) were moralistic and simplistic thinkers. They had no sense of what would happen to prostitutes were the activity criminalized. They mostly assumed the women would go to work somewhere else and reach for middle-class moral standards. But prostitutes largely rejected these ideas, particularly the condescending way the reformers treated them. Many prostitutes turned to that profession because it paid far, far more than factory work. They faced sexual harassment and rape in the factories anyway; some felt they might as well get paid well for the sex they were forced to give.

Between 1900 and 1920, these reformers did largely succeed in criminalizing prostitution. They closed down the brothels and eliminated the red light districts. Did this end prostitution? Of course not. It forced women into streetwalking. Murders of prostitutes went up. Like with the prohibition of alcohol. criminal forces took it over, making the lives of women even worse. The prostitutes were heavily prosecuted and faced jail time, but johns hardly ever dealt with any serious charges. Pimps became dominant in organizing prostitution, which usually was a situation far worse for the women than the madams they formerly worked under.

Again, the Progressive reformers did not think through their actions. By chance, last night the great U.S. historian Linda Gordon gave a talk here at Southwestern. She argued that child-first policies throughout the last 100 years generally led to child-last results. Because of the focus on the purity and innocence of children, anyone supposedly harming those interests was evil. While of course some people are evil, being unfit for taking care of children could also mean having a boyfriend, buying clothes for yourself, or eating Italian food. Literally. Garlic and tomato sauce was seen in the Progressive Era as bad for children. So children were taken away by these reformers without them having thought through their actions. The children went into underfunded brutal orphanages, sent to horrid foster homes that put the children to work, or even shipped across the nation on orphan trains. Despite the fact that they had mothers.

We are living with the legacy of these Progressive reformers today. We also still believe in the prohibitionist ideas they did. We might make fun of Prohibition with a capital P. But outside of alcohol, we act in ways Progressives might recognize. We still think drugs should be criminalized, leading to a hugely expensive and overcrowded prison system filled with people convicted of nonviolent crimes. We still see prostitution as something best forgotten about, condemning women working in the sex trade to the margins, where they can be raped and murdered with little public concern. Yet our own sexual double standard allows for a huge pornography industry.

Yesterday in my Progressive Era course, we read Rosen's book on prostitution. Much to my surprise almost all the students who cared to give an opinion supported regulation of prostitution rather than prohibition. Given that I am teaching at a nominally religious school in central Texas, I did not expect such a result. And certainly this is not as conservative a student body as many other nearby schools. However, I think these opinions reflect an increasingly libertarian view on social matters. Sexuality is increasingly embraced, whether it is pornography or gay marriage or even legal prostitution. I have to believe this is a good thing. Maybe we are finally breaking away from the Progressive legacy of prohibition and forgetting.