When critics bring up the similarity of today’s trafficking brouhaha with white-slavery scares, they most often point to William Steads investigation for the Pall Mall Gazette in London in the late 19th century. In the April 2008 issue of Reason Magazine, Joanne McNeill reviews Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, by Karen Abbott. I’ve highlighted some phrases that show how the same contradictory interpretations of ‘the evidence’ occurred back then and the same rhetoric from those who hate prostitution.
In 1907 a group of evangelicals visited Chicago’s Everleigh Club brothel, where they handed out leaflets that said, “No ‘white slave’ need remain in slavery in this State of Abraham Lincoln who made the black slaves free.” According to the Illinois poet Edgar Lee Masters, an Everleigh Club regular, “the girls laughed in their faces.” In Sin in the Second City, the Atlanta-based journalist Karen Abbott recounts how Minna Everleigh, one of the club’s proprietors, “explained graciously, patiently, that the Everleigh Club was free from disease, that [a doctor] examined the girls regularly, that neither she nor Ada [Everleigh, her sister and co-proprietor] would tolerate anything approaching violence, that drugs were forbidden and drinks tossed out, that guests were never robbed nor rolled, and that there was actually a waiting list of girls, spanning the continental United States, eager to join the house. No captives here, Reverends.”
The Everleigh Club was an ornate mansion. Thirty themed boudoirs (“the Japanese Parlor,” “the Moorish Room,” “the Egyptian Room”) included absurd touches of decadence, such as hidden buttons to ring for champagne and a fountain that fired a jet of perfume. The city’s finest chefs prepared the women’s dinners. They read poetry by the fire with guests, who included the writers Theodore Dreiser and Ring Lardner. Sometimes Minna and Ada let swarms of butterflies fly loose throughout the house.
Some anti-prostitution activists nevertheless believed the Everleigh ladies were no different from slaves. Then as now, opponents of prostitution assumed that no woman in her right mind consensually exchanges sex for money. Abbott challenges that view in her account of Chicago’s red light district at the turn of the last century. She interweaves the stories of sex workers and clientele, evangelical activists and conservative bureaucrats, explaining how the term “white slavery” was routinely applied to consenting adults. Reading her historical account, you can hear echoes of that debate in the current crusade against sex trafficking, which similarly blurs the line between coercion and consent.
The Everleigh sisters, Abbott notes, believed a sex worker was “more than an unwitting conduit for virtue. An employee in a business, she was an investment and should be treated as such, receiving nutritious meals, a thorough education, expert medical care, and generous wages. In their house, a courtesan would make a living as viable as—and more lucrative than—those earned by the thousands of young women seeking work in cities as stenographers and sweatshop seamstresses, department store clerks and domestics. The sisters wanted to uplift the profession, remove its stain and stigma, argue that a girl can’t lose her social standing if she stands level with those poised to judge her.”
The attempt to portray prostitutes as professionals never made much headway against the tendency to view them as victims. At the beginning of Sin in the Second City, Abbott describes an event in 1887 that forever changed the American public’s perception of sex workers. Authorities raided a Michigan lumber camp, finding nine women working as prostitutes. Eight accepted their prison sentences, but the ninth woman protested that she was tortured and forced into sex slavery. The lumberyard proprietors claimed the women were well aware of what they were hired to do; “the job description,” Abbott notes, “made no mention of cutting trees.” But the public was so moved by the woman’s story that she was pardoned and released from jail.
It was 20 years before another case of “white slavery” was reported in a Midwestern newspaper. But in the meantime, rumors of girls who were “trafficked” into sex slavery began to circulate. In 1899 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union missionary Charlton Edholm reported, “There is a slave trade in this country, and it is not black folks at this time, but little white girls —thirteen, fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen years of age—and they are snatched out of our arms, and from our Sabbath schools and from our Communion tables.” Perhaps they found themselves in a “false employment snare,” in which a young rural girl answered a city want ad and found herself locked in a brothel, her clothes held for ransom. Or maybe a gentleman from the big city, after plying her with drinks or drugs, deflowered her and sold her to a pimp.
Around the same time, anti-prostitution evangelical groups revised their platforms. Victorian society previously had reviled prostitutes as lost women who reduced men to animals. The rhetorical shift conveniently removed the prostitute’s responsibility for her actions. “Reformers across the country repeated and embellished Edholm’s narratives, panders used them as handy instruction manuals, and harlots memorized all the ways they might be tricked or trapped,” Abbott writes. These rumors reinforced rural Midwesterners’ fears of losing their children to the dirty, crime-ridden streets of Chicago. “Never before in civilization,” wrote Hull House founder Jane Addams in 1909, “have such numbers of girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.” Read the rest at Reason.