English: U.S. World War II anti-venereal disease poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The thirteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America specifically prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime yet, the current system of morality based law governing prostitution continues to hold select citizens captive to arbitrary standards of decency. Intertwined with those against the sexual abuse of children current laws do little to protect the common good but, instead serve to publicize and shame one of the most intimate facets of human existence. It should not be within the jurisdiction of state law to limit it’s free citizenship’s physicality in the pursuit of monetary compensation when such pursuit poses no threat to the welfare of the public or to national security. The common acceptance of sexuality in American society render the antiquated ideals responsible for the illegality of prostitution fundamentally unjust.
Prostitution has historically been viewed as a female profession which both encourages and propagates the vice of lust. In 1699 the first barriers to the freedom of women arising from the business of selling sex began to appear when Massachusetts, with no laws against prostitution, made it a crime for women to walk on the street at night. Ironically the same lawmakers who purported concern for the demoralization of women fully supported the payment of a dowry in the contract of marriage; a contract which reduced girls as young as thirteen to nothing more than property bargained for in a financial agreement between men.
In 1900 a group of prominent New York businessmen known as The Committee of Fifteen addressed the issue of prostitution; seeking a means to preserve the morality of communities affected by vice, the group hired investigators who were paid to visit neighborhoods and establishments where prostitution was known to occur often posing as potential customers while attempting to gather information. Their findings, The Social Evil, a 270 page comprehensive report was published in 1902 by Putnam’s Sons, in respect to the presence of prostitution they concluded, “there is no reason to think this condition is transitory” and in respect to the individual prostitute she was described, “Like the pauper, the prostitute is a creature of civilization, and, like the pauper, will continue to thrust her undesirable presence upon society.” The group found it beyond the scope of the law to eliminate prostitution and focused the largest part of their findings on recommendations by which the State could impose regulations governing its practice. Tainted by the prevailing modesty of the early 20th century these researchers made no mention of the rights of women to the use of their bodies and upheld the common belief that the selling of sex was immoral and degrading however, their arguments in support of public health rather than the elimination of vice are none-the-less relevant today.
On June 25, 1910 The United States Supreme court passed the Horace Mann Act also known as The White Slave Trade Act; making any interstate transportation of women or girls for the purpose of engaging in prostitution a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment. In addition to the act of transportation the law also included maintaining a dwelling or the importation of foreign women and girls for the same purpose. While the law was written to prevent the coercion and transportation of underage girls and unwilling adults into the sex trade it punished the transportation and participation of willing participants with equal vigor. There are currently thirty-two amendments to the original act passed in 1910; the name has been reduced to The Mann Act and it has been expanded to include women of different races, polygamy and child pornography. The Horace Mann act endowed the Federal Government with the power to prosecute citizens for engaging in the act of prostitution but, in 1911 the law was challenged and subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court in Hoke v.U.S. 308 and it was decided the United States Government should be limited to enforcement on a national and international level.
While serving on a special grand jury in 1913 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. founded The Bureau of Social Hygiene whose purpose was “the study, amelioration, and prevention of those social conditions, crimes and diseases which adversely affect the well-being of society, with special reference to prostitution and the evils associated therewith.” In July of 1918 the United States continued its assault on the freedom of women with the passing of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act which made it legal to quarantine for the protection of the military and naval forces any woman suspected of having a venereal disease. It also concluded any medical diagnoses of venereal disease must also constitute proof of a female victim’s participation in the crime of prostitution. Thus, women were stripped of the basic ideal of presumed innocence, judged and detained for an illness which could have been contracted from only one sexual encounter.
The notion that prostitution is predominantly degrading to women is flawed and based in the belief that all of its practitioners are victims of poverty or manipulation who, unable to escape the ruthless clutches of vice, remain trapped in a profession not of their choosing. Contrary to this opinion there are women who freely choose to work in the sex trade. The website, Vegan Vixen is the personal blog of one such women; employed in the brothel system of Nevada the words she uses to describe herself include, “sexy, sassy and silly” she goes on to depict herself as, “thought-provoking, sex-positive and eco-conscious” Her blog provides a realistic look at the benefits she enjoys as a direct result of prostitution, including the ability to work a limited schedule allowing her the time for hobbies such as creative writing and gardening. In addition to personal freedom, she undergoes frequent health screenings which also detect non-sexually transmitted diseases thereby increasing the opportunity for early detection and survival. In regards to her customers, she writes, “the majority of them are very kind and respectful” it is doubtful the average minimum wage cashier considers herself as lucky. In contrast to the self-possessed joyful woman responsible for an entertaining blog the happiness level of women who hold jobs in more traditional industries has been on a steady decrease. In a working paper published by The National Bureau of Economic Research authors Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers paint a sad picture of the failing level of personal satisfaction now experienced by the American working woman. It was thought the increased wages and more affluent titles gained by women through greater education levels would lead to lives filled with greater freedom of choice and economic security however, this would not be factually accurate. Instead college educated women who hold down full-time jobs report growing levels of stress, declining personal relationships and decreased pursuit of personal interests. Married women report an additional feeling of economic stress as the numbers of men who earn less than their spouse increases and the pressures associated with the responsibility to support the family are shifted to the feminine. If anything is gained from a comparison of these two different lifestyle models it is the knowledge that if legal interference resulted in the inability of either side to pursue the financial gain of their choice, it would be impossible to fully measure the impact of societal change as it applies to the American woman.
Laws written or enforced to protect the innocent from the influence of the vice of lust as it pertains to prostitution seem nonsensical given the amount of sexuality displayed by the media in 2013; in fact sexual content is so readily available cable companies and television manufactures include mechanisms by which parents can limit accessibility. In addition to broadcast media, a single trip to the local grocery store reveals checkout lines filled with magazine headlines of the sexual exploits of entertainers and political figures. In 2004 the Rand Corporation a non-profit research organization whose primary aim is to offer enlightenment in areas which could adversely affect the public conducted an independent study and discovered exposure to sex on television represented the largest determining factor in the sexual conduct of the American teenager. Contrary to the laws regarding prostitution whose primary concerns are limited to acts of sex, it was further concluded even dialogue about sex in the media was enough to increase activity among underage persons. Based on this information it is easy to assume prostitution poses no real threat to the morality of American youth; if regulated in the same manner as other pursuits restricted by age it would not cause an increase in either disease or unwanted pregnancy among the same population.
The long-standing belief in prostitution as a threat to the health of the public was dis-proven in April of 2012 when the PROS Network (Providers and Resources Offering Services to sex workers) sited the confiscation of condoms by police as prosecutory evidence for the crime of prostitution as the underlying cause of a public health crisis. In an executive summary 57% sex workers in New York reported engagement in sexual activity after being forced to surrender condoms to the police, going one step further 75% of transgendered women reported a fear of police persecution as a result of being caught with condoms. Four different eyewitness accounts of illegal search were also reported by minorities in conjunction with the possession of condoms. The investigation led to changes in the law which prevented police officials from taking condoms as evidence from persons suspected of prostitution. Clearly this report exhibits both responsible action on the part of free people to protect themselves and others from sexually transmitted diseases as well as the damage wrought when fundamental rights to privacy are invaded by the legal system.
The rights of women concerning the use of their bodies have been the subject of lawmakers throughout American history. Currently women have the right to abort an unborn fetus, the right to alter their appearance with plastic surgery, the right to professions which could lead to the end of life yet, the right to freedom of expression in matters of their sexuality continues to be considered the place of the state. These limits represent the attitudes present in colonial American when a woman could be bartered off by her father in a marriage contract which bound her to lifelong sexual fidelity. Criminalization of prostitution by government allows for unfair treatment under the law and is supported by standards of morality where no harm to public welfare can be realistically established.
Although by no means a complete look at the history of law regarding prostitution, this overview provides the basis from which it can be argued the rights of women to willingly engage in self-sustaining employment have been violated rendering them primarily limited in the use of their physical body in pursuit of the same. In addition enforcement of law whether on the Federal or State level which continues to unwillingly bind the ownership of free citizens’ personages to the government stands in direct opposition to the ideals of individual freedom. In terms of limiting the working rights of free citizens under the guise of protection, lawmakers are obligated to consider each wage earning endeavor under the same standard of moral accountability. Until every professional pursuit with any potential for injury is rendered unlawful all law which renders prostitution illegal should be abolished and amended in support of regulation with the aim of eliminating prosecution.
 A sum of money or land paid to a man by the father of a woman in a marriage contract. (The University of Houston)
 (The Bureau of Social Hygiene Archives)