Vice Squad
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Legal Prostitution in the US in the Early 20th Century

One of the hazards of writing a book is that you might eventually discover something wrong, or infelicitously worded, right at the beginning, and then you are confronted with your error again and again over the years. On page 2 of Regulating Vice I mention that prostitution was "legal in much of the United States in the first two decades of the [20th] century..." I thought that I had said "legal or tolerated" but I didn't actually include the tolerated part. Is it true that prostitution was legal in much of the US early in the 20th century? [Most large cities had red-light districts where prostitution was tolerated -- Storyville in New Orleans was the most famous example. (Scroll down here for more on Storyville; thanks to the SWOP East Sex Workers Outreach Project for the link.) I have seen conflicting claims on whether prostitution was legal or just tolerated in Storyville.] Well, I am still unsure, but it looks as if the answer is "no" -- that is, prostitution was tolerated in much of the US at the time, but it was not legal. I have just reviewed chapter 2 of David Langum's great book on the Mann Act, and it mentions the legalization and regulation of prostitution in St. Louis in 1870. Apparently such regulatory moves were more common, as they provoked a considerable backlash in the form of various purity societies working against legal recognition of prostitution. Nevertheless, Langum states that "almost all of the [urban red-light] districts existed only by tolerance and lacked any legally protected status...[p. 25]," so it looks as if my page 2 claim is wrong. Ugh.

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