The Same Old Arguments: Tropes of Race and Class in the History of Prostitution from the Progressive Era to the Present.

AuthorLilley, Terry G.

IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL PROBLEMS, RHETORIC OFTEN OUTWEIGHS data. This is especially true in the history of prostitution. Historically and today, US policies and practices directed at prostitution have systematically ignored structural factors in favor of pathologizing individuals and social groups associated with sex work. Such policies and practices are rooted in misconceptions about prostitution that emerged in the early twentieth century in the United States as a response to social anxieties over shifting economic structures, challenges to previously held ideas about female sexual agency, and patterns of migration and immigration specifically as they relate to race.

This article concerns the existence of tropes in the history of prostitution that coalesce in this earlier period but persist into the present. We identify two major axes around which these tropes operate: race as a line of worthiness and the prostitute as an economic actor. Criminal justice approaches to prostitution disproportionately impact communities of color and other marginalized groups. The failure to recognize sex work as a form of labor situates sex workers as morally deficient. We argue that the historical roots of these ideas can be found in the early twentieth-century reform efforts directed at prostitution. The first part of this article mines archival data to reveal the foundation of these tropes with rich empirical historical detail. The second part of the paper establishes their continued presence in the contemporary period. The degree to which these historical tropes continue to inform contemporary discursive practices allows us to ignore both the structural conditions and the underlying resilience of sex workers.

For the historical foundation, we use reanalysis of archival data from Katharine Bement Davis, founding superintendent of the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford (hereinafter Bedford), which has played a central role in the formation of US womens corrections and social reform as well as prostitution policy and research. Davis arrived at Bedford with an advanced degree in political economy and an emphasis on scientific investigation into female delinquency (Rosenberg 1982, 197-99; Sealander 1997, 160). By the time she left Bedford to assume the position of commissioner of corrections in New York City, she was widely regarded as a leading authority on female delinquency and penal reform (Fitzpatrick 1990, 92). Bedford, established in 1892 and opened in 1901, embodied Davis's approach, and represented a "new penology" emphasizing the connection between social science and social reform, and rehabilitation through education and training (Bowler et al. 2013; Freedman 1984, 130--31). The reformatory itself was set up to more closely resemble a boarding school than a prison and was staffed exclusively by women who acted as examples of respectable womanhood. To aid in the reform, Bedford was located on over two hundred rural acres in suburban Westchester County in New York State, far from the corrupting influences of the urban center from which 80 percent of the inmate population had been committed (Freedman 1984, 131; Kneeland 1913/1969, 277). Although the reformatory accepted women convicted of felonies (provided it was their first felony conviction and that the felony was not first- or second-degree murder), the majority of the inmate population fell between the ages of 17 and 22 and arrived on the basis of "public order crimes," a category of minor offenses that included inebriation, truancy, and an assortment of "chastity" violations (Rafter 1992, 212). An influential 1913 study based on the records of 647 inmates published by Davis and George Kneeland revealed that 272, or 42 percent, had been arrested as "common prostitutes" (Davis 1913/1969, 236), a

designation that, during the Progressive period, included not just the exchange of sex for money but also flirtatiousness, premarital sex, or other behaviors that deviated from Victorian codes of moral sexual propriety (Connelly 1980, 8-9, 17-22; D'Emilio & Freedman 1988, 199; Hobson 1987, 124-26; Rafter 1992, 61, 118, 160; Rosen 1982, 42-43).

Aside from broad and indiscriminate definitions, research on the social response to prostitution in the early twentieth-century United States has shown that prominent reformers of the period operated with assumptions about race and class that influenced their efforts at the local level as well as broader social policy initiatives. Reformers utilized race as a line to demark worthiness and unworthiness among women incarcerated for prostitution. Young, working-class white women were seen as worthy of reform and became the focus of social policy. Our previous research has shown how influential reformers like Davis used calculations that erroneously indicated an overrepresentation of the daughters of immigrant parents at Bedford to support such a skewed focus. At the same time, reformers like Davis ignored the overrepresentation of Black women in the reformatory population.

We have also shown how reformers consistently displaced the intersection of gender and economics. Whereas the early Bedford data is rich with economic information, economic factors were consistently dismissed as an explanation for women's participation in sex work in favor of perceived personal and moral failures. Beyond the walls of Bedford, these assumptions permeated the field of women's reform. (1) Far from being free-floating ideas, these assumptions about race and economics influenced the organization of early women's prisons and continue to guide the theory and practice of reform, as well as the laws and social policies that police the sexuality of young, working-class women.

Thus, our work joins the scholarly conversation that questions the contemporary disjointed approach to prostitution. Policy and practice pit the worthy prostitute against the unworthy one, at times by categorizing women working in prostitution as victims and at others as willful bad actors. At the level of public statements, policy makers and institutional leaders may at times describe concern for so-called fallen women, but in other instances, prostitutes are decried for their failures to benefit from interventions designed to save and contain them. We interrogate the historical record to show the misuse of empirical claims in support of these persistent mistaken assumptions and then describe the ways contemporary policy demonstrates their persistence. Overall, we argue that the persistent, historically rooted failure to acknowledge structure allows current efforts to address prostitution and sexual exploitation to tinker around the edges, enabling the further marginalization of those on the periphery rather than requiring the fundamental alteration of the core.

Race as a Line of Worthiness

Many reformers and social scientists at the turn of the twentieth century focused on the daughters of immigrant European parentage. For example, as we have detailed in another article, one foundational assumption that these women were overrepresented in the reformatory population was based on a mathematical miscalculation and statistical error (Bowler et al. 2016). "The group that contributes out of proportion to its percentage in the population," Davis (1913/1969, 177) wrote, "is that of the native-born of foreign parents." In fact, as we show, the only population overrepresented in the reformatory were Black women, (2) a population all but ignored in Davis's writings and speeches, annual reports, and other published and unpublished documents to come out of the reformatory, as well as in related studies conducted by experts associated with Bedford.

The focus on white women of European heritage, and the lack of focus on Black women, however, was not just a matter of a mathematical error. Instead, it was bolstered by dominant understandings of race, arise in nativist ideology, and concerns about assimilation in a time of massive immigration and migration. As Gross and Hicks (2015, 359) have argued, "the belief that African American women ... lacked virtue" rendered them unsuitable targets for moral improvement and thereby "undergirded middle-class white reformers' decisions to focus reform efforts and special programs on young white women rather than young black women and girls." This is made manifest by the way Black women fell outside the disciplinary scrutiny of the institution. In 1923, Edith Spaulding, director of the Psychopathic Hospital at Bedford, published a report on the subset of the reformatory population who were admitted to the hospital between 1916 and 1918. Spaulding (1923/1969, 119) excluded race from systematic analyses but offered sidenotes that emphasized racial differences, such as "there was an emotional makeup that suggested the force and abandon of primitive races." This aside is quite similar in tone and content to Davis's (1913/1969, 179) description of a German inmate at Bedford as "... as much of a heathen as if she had been born in Central Africa."

Similarly, in a comprehensive and influential study that presented the results of a 10-year survey of 647 inmates at Bedford, published by Davis in 1913, there were 14 references to the 89 Black inmates who were part of the sample. These references, as well as those from other writings, were largely cursory and did not rise to the level of detailed scrutiny to which white inmates' lives were subject. This dearth of reference and detail betrays a lack of attention to Black inmates writ large. Blackness was evoked, however, as a sign of the primitive when reformatory administrators needed to explain the condition of difficult white women in the prison population who resisted reform. As such, the way race functioned in the practice of reform at Bedford exhibited an assumption that Black women were not subjects for reform in the same sense that white women were; Black women were by nature deficient...

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