To Whisper or to Howl?
Subjects of Prostitution Regulation Debate Oppression
by Mary Powell [December 7th, 2004]
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
particularly telling moments in the history of prostitution regulation in the
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.
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
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
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.
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.
beginning of the next century a new tide of immigrants had wash upon the shores
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.
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.” 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.
World War Two, a slightly different situation was present in
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.
response, all of the prostitutes on
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
argues that HIV/AIDS rates and crime (including rape) are roughly the same or
higher in the
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.
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. This side of the debate still possesses some
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. 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.”
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.
scrutinizing aspects of
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
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)
Liberator, Mark. “Legalized Prostitution: Regulating the Oldest Profession.” The Liberator, (December, 2003). http://www.liberator.net/articles/prostitution.html
Page Law. Forty-Third Congress,
Congress, Session II.
 Roger Daniels, Coming
 William Farwell, “Why the Chinese Must Be Excluded,” The Forum Vol. 6, (1888), 201.
 Page Law, Sections 3, 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.
 Dillingham, 65.
 Dillingham, 75-76.
 Richard Greer.
 Statutes of
 Mark Liberator. “Legalized Prostitution: Regulating the Oldest Profession.” The Liberator, (December, 2003). http://www.liberator.net/articles/prostitution.html
 Liberator, (2003).
 Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Eds. Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. (Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1987), 290-296.
 Sarah Wynter, “Whisper: Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt,” from Sex Work, (Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1987), 268.
 Wynter, 267.
 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.