To Whisper or to Howl?

Subjects of Prostitution Regulation Debate Oppression

by Mary Powell (e-mail: [Updated February 19th, 2005]


This article is also available as a Word document. Site the article as:
Powell, M. (2005) To Whisper or to Howl?: Subjects of Prostitution Regulation Debate Oppression. Online Resource Accessed on {insert date} at

            There is little disagreement that prostitution is the oldest profession, that it has been around as long as humans, very sexual beings, first started bartering and bargaining their services.  For just as long, however, there has been pervasive disagreement over the appropriateness and viability of this work.  The United States, a relatively young sex market, has had its share of tumultuous moments regarding the regulation of sex work, starting with the first immigration laws and speckling the legislative landscape up into the 21st century.

            Four particularly telling moments in the history of prostitution regulation in the US are the Page Law of 1875, the conclusions of the federal Immigration Commission of 1911, World War Two prostitution in Hawaii, and the legalization of sex work in Nevada in 1971.  This investigation will explore these four moments in history while examining different sides of the debate, including the views of sex workers themselves and of the general public.

            Organizations of current and former sex workers provide clear, though often contradictory, insight into the personal and political spheres of this profession and its legislation.  Though different perspectives have colored regulation of this institution, an overarching blame has historically been placed on the hegemonic attitudes of society, blaming men for the creation and perpetuation of prostitution. 


“There is a movement of outsiders, people unaffiliated with the profession itself, who argue for the legalization of prostitution. These people generally appeal to humanism and state their goal to make the world safer for women.”

In a time marked by Chinese Exclusion and increasingly discriminatory policies regarding immigration and whiteness, the Page Law, passed in 1875, further tightened restriction on nonwhite women coming into the United States.[1]  Because many of the Asians coming to the West Coast were single male laborers, a majority of whites in the area were concerned that the men would frequent brothels instead of bringing their families.  Indeed, by the 1880s the ratio of Chinese men to women in California was twenty to one.[2]

            To prevent the immoral actions of unattached lower class men, the government decided to restrict women’s immigration to only wives.  The idea was that if men would begin bringing their families to the country, perhaps the immoral prostitution in California’s Chinatowns would decrease and men could be civilized by their women.  One advocate of Chinese Exclusion and the Page Law claimed in 1888 that 576 of the 1,394 Chinese women living in Chinatown were prostitutes (i.e. over 40%).[3]

            At first glance it would seem that Californians were doggedly opposed to the Chinese prostitutes themselves, but in reading the text of the Page Law it becomes clear that its goal was actually to punish the males who forced women into contracts to prostitute themselves.  The greatest punishment, five years in prison or a $5,000 fine, was given mostly to “who[m]ever shall knowingly and willfully hold, or attempt to hold” women for the purpose of prostitution.[4]

            In this legislation we see the beginnings of an attitude trend that continues to this day.  Though women may themselves choose to go into this profession, many people—prostitutes, law-makers, and laypeople alike—believe that the real culprits are the men who force them to go into the profession.  Due to this reasoning, the Page Law provided punishment for only the ship owners or businessmen who transported and made contracts for the women, not for the women themselves. 

            By the beginning of the next century a new tide of immigrants had wash upon the shores of the U.S. and the country began to worry about the effects and influences of these “New Immigrants” on society.  In response to this panic, Congress created the Immigration Commission in 1909, chaired by William Dillingham and composed of nine commissioners.  Their goal was to explore every aspect of immigrant life and culture and make recommendations to Congress for immigration restriction.

            The final report of the Commission consisted of forty volumes—over 20,000 pages—on topics ranging from children in school and immigrants’ skull sizes to prostitution and women’s fertility.  One 75-page section was entitled “The Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes,” which gave a charged, opinionated account of the prostitution market for immigrants.[5] 

            Whereas several of the volumes contained tens of pages of stark, unanalyzed data, this section provided rich commentary on the same type of importation of women that the Page Law had restricted.  The report, once again, targeted the men bringing European women into the country and, while it did say that some of the women were themselves immoral, the “pimps” were considered the vilest.  Under recommendation by the Commission, the current law was made stricter, causing the number of deportations of women to increase from 65 in 1907 to 261 in 1909.

            The language of the report reflects most clearly the views of that age of government officials.  Though the women entered the country to improve their standards of living, the real culprits were not the generally “young and affectionate” women, but the “keepers of the houses, the pimps, and the procurers, who live[d] by their exploitation.”[6]  The most telling phrase in the report is “white-slave traffic” which demonstrates the firm belief that women are coerced into selling their bodies and have little control over their fate.  According to the report, even a woman who “revolts bitterly” against the work is eventually forced to submit, or else face beatings, rape, or murder by her pimp.[7]

            During World War Two, a slightly different situation was present in Honolulu.  During the war, over 7 million men were stationed in or passed through the city on their way to fight in the South Pacific.  This, of course, provided a high demand for sex work, as some of the men coming through town hadn’t seen a woman for months.  At any given time, over 200 women who had come over from the mainland were working on Hotel Street, a block full of brothels that charged three dollars for three minutes.[8]

            Though the women were required to have regular medical checks, which resulted in a surprisingly low rate of venereal diseases, there were many other strict regulations over the women’s actions.  Some of these were that: prostitutes were not to be seen in public with army officers, they were not to wire money home to their families, were not to own cars and they were not to have bank accounts.

            The prostitutes and the madams who ran the assembly line-like brothels paid taxes on their respective yearly incomes of up to $40,000 and up to $150,000 (madams).  Because the women were making such huge sums of money and yet still had men constantly lined up on street, they decided to raise their prices.  The chief of police (and strong opposition to the brothels), Frank Steer, said, “The price of meat [is] still three dollars,” dehumanizing the women and signifying a contempt of the lucrative profession.

            In response, all of the prostitutes on Hotel Street broke with precedent and went on strike on August 28, 1942.  The strike lasted for 22 days and, not surprisingly, caused enormous uproar among the servicemen who counted on having women to visit during their R&R.  As a result, the women gained the rights to live and roam wherever they pleased, though the women were still not allowed to raise their prices.[9]

            Two years later, near the end of the war, Hawaiian Governor Stainbeck enforced the closing of the bordellos on Hotel Street, but the situation and organization of the women of Hotel Street were pivotal moments in the history of women’s rights.  The women in Hawaii were working to feed their families just as the Rosie the Riveters were doing back home, and were influential, assertive, and, in a perverse way, respected by the Honolulu community.

            When the brothels were closed many people expressed concern that the soldiers and riffraff who had frequented the brothels would pour out onto the streets and that the women would continue to sell their bodies, but in a less safe manner.  In examining this Hawaii anomaly next to the previous Page and Dillingham legislations and recommendations it becomes unclear whether the males in control were forcing women to go into sex work or whether they were the ones forcing them out of sex work.  One former sex worker on Hotel Street said, “I see here that this paper says we can’t practice prostitution any more. Heck, I don’t practice, I’m an expert.”[10]

            Twenty-five years later, the country had moved out of the Great Wars, the Cold War, and McCarthyism, and was in the midst of the Vietnam War.  Tensions were high and threats of communist and undemocratic immorality had settled like a fever.  In Nevada, prostitution had been a tradition of its first settlers and many wanted it to become a legal tradition.  Because of fierce struggle over prostitution, a law was passed in 1971 declaring that brothels could legally exist in counties with fewer than 400,000 people.[11]

            In the brothels, regular medical checks are required for all prostitutes and condoms are required in all interactions with prostitutes.  Because of these requirements, including the rule that prostitution must be confined to managed, tax paying houses, Nevada prostitution is safer than it the profession is in other states in which prostitution is illegal.

            Websites online outline the many services each brothel provides, and have pictures of the women available.  One brothel has over 200 women posted on its website, and accepts all major credit or debit cards, and has an ATM on the ranch if customers would prefer to use cash.  Most ranches, such as one called the Chicken Ranch, have female managers similar to the madams of Hotel Street.  Business men can reserve “parties” at the ranches in which many men patronize the women, or can hold cocktail parties where men mingle and then pair off with the woman of their choice.

            Although many of these women seem to be choosing the business for themselves, the combination of the economic conditions causing influencing their decisions and the assembly-line structure of the brothels contributes to both sides of the regulation debate.  Despite the safer conditions of these women, there are still new propositions nearly every year in the Nevada legislature to illegalize prostitution. 

            There is a movement of outsiders, people unaffiliated with the profession itself, who argue for the legalization of prostitution.  These people generally appeal to humanism and state their goal to make the world safer for women.  One Chicago high school teacher, “Mark Liberator” writes online about his pro-legalization views by comparing the United States to various countries that regulate prostitution.

            Liberator argues that HIV/AIDS rates and crime (including rape) are roughly the same or higher in the United States than in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands, which have legal prostitution.  He also evokes the image of women getting illegal abortions before Roe vs. Wade in 1973—before the Supreme Court decision, he says, 5,000 women died from botched abortions each year.[12]  He compares this statistic to those regarding rape in the United States and suggests that prostitution would be safer for women if it were legal.[13]  This argument, thought coming from an upper-middle class man, ties in directly with one group of former prostitutes who advocate its legalization.  By looking at groups of prostitutes or former prostitutes, we are able to see the personal side of this condition. 

            COYOTE, or Call off your Old Tired Ethics, is an organization founded by an ex-prostitute in 1973.  The group advocates the legalization of prostitution because it believes that prostitutes’ issues are women’s issues and that no one at that time was publicly addressing those issues, particularly not from the prostitute’s side.  The backbone of COYOTE’s stance is that prostitution is a viable profession, that women should be free to choose whatever profession will help them the most economically and that by keeping prostitution legal we will be keeping women safe.

            Organizations such as COYOTE and the National Task Force on Prostitution hold the belief that women join the profession because of circumstance, and that by improving standard of living women can liberate themselves.[14]  This side of the debate still possesses some of the Page/Dillingham/Hotel Street ideology that men are the cause of this profession, that the women are victims unless they are making their own safe choices.

            The counter argument, held by prostitute organizations such as WHISPER, or Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt, share the belief that men are perpetuating the institution, but believe that just helping women and educating them is not enough.  An advocate for WHISPER states that the fact that seventy-five percent of prostitutes have been victims of paternal sexual abuse shows a causal relationship between male hegemony and entrance into the profession.[15]  The organization rejects the notions that prostitution provides agency and a means of wealth for women, and place responsibility on men who are in both the “conservative right and the liberal left male hierarchies collude to teach and keep women in prostitution.”[16]

            This view is nearly exactly that held by the Immigration Commission, but with a more womanist side, blaming even the system of marriage for forcing women to remain submissive.  The main difference seen here between early male ideas of prostitution and these women’s organizations is that while William Dillingham blamed men for the direct coercion of women, WHISPER’s members go even deeper and hold men accountable for putting women in a state in which they think prostitution is their only choice.  WHISPER believes that the active and responsible approach to ending this oppressive coercion is to stop the institution in its tracks by arresting the male oppressors rather than the women themselves, because, according to WHISPER, women are the true victims of this very tangible crime.[17]

            In scrutinizing aspects of US prostitution history as it is enveloped in public and person opinion, it becomes clear that a majority holds the masculine hierarchy responsible for the perpetuation of this institution.  Even those opposed to prostitution, such as the Dillingham Commissioners and Chinese Exclusionists, held firmly to the belief that the women themselves were not to blame for their immoral behavior.

            Statistics and recounts of both sides of the argument clearly reflect indecision on the women’s parts.  Even women who feel they are making the decision to join the sex work industry are, according to many ex-prostitutes, not wholly making the decision; women have been socialized to believe that it is acceptable for men to exert often violent power over women, and this causes them to view prostitution as a viable option.  COYOTE believes that the only way to make prostitution safe is to regulate it, however both the howling and whispering sides of this constant debate share one fundamental belief: women deserve better than this.



Daniels, Roger. Coming to America (New York: Perennial Publishers, 2002), 241. 


Delacoste, Frederique, and Priscilla Alexander, Eds.  Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry.  (Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1987).


Dillingham, William P., Commission Chairman.  “Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes,” Dillingham Immigration Commission Report. Vol. 37, Pt. 2.  (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911)


Farwell, William. “Why the Chinese Must Be Excluded,” The Forum Vol. 6, (1888)


Greer, Richard.  “Dousing Honolulu’s Red Lights,” The Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol. 34, (Hawaiian Historical Society: 2000).


Liberator, Mark.  “Legalized Prostitution: Regulating the Oldest Profession.”  The Liberator, (December, 2003).


Page Law.  Forty-Third Congress, Session II. Ch. 141.  March 3, 1875.  (San Francisco Chinatown: October, 2004).


Statutes of Nevada, NRS 244.345, Chapter 244. Counties: Government General Positions. (2001)

[1] Page Law.  Forty-Third Congress, Session II. Ch. 141.  March 3, 1875.  (San Francisco: Chinatown, October, 2004).

[2] Roger Daniels, Coming to America (New York: Perennial Publishers, 2002), 241. 

[3] William Farwell, “Why the Chinese Must Be Excluded,” The Forum Vol. 6, (1888), 201.

[4] Page Law, Sections 3, 5.


[5] William P. Dillingham, Commission Chairman.  “Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes,” Dillingham Immigration Commission Report. Vol. 37, Pt. 2.  (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911), 53.

[6] Dillingham, 65.

[7] Dillingham, 75-76.

[8] Richard Greer.  “Dousing Honolulu’s Red Lights,” The Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol. 34, (Hawaiian Historical Society: 2000), 185-202.


[9] Greer.

[10] Greer.

[11] Statutes of Nevada, NRS 244.345, Chapter 244. Counties: Government General Positions. (2001)


[12] Mark Liberator.  “Legalized Prostitution: Regulating the Oldest Profession.”  The Liberator, (December, 2003).

[13] Liberator, (2003).

[14] Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Eds.  Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry.  (Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1987), 290-296.

[15] Sarah Wynter, “Whisper: Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt,” from Sex Work, (Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1987), 268.

[16] Wynter, 267.

[17] Another important aspect of this organization is its complete rejection of the notion that prostitution, peep shows, and pornography.  All are crimes against women, and all involve the vending of women’s bodies and women’s dignity.  Wynter, 270.