Saturday, July 05, 2008

sin in the second city

I just finished reading Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott. The book is about two madams, Ada and Minna Everleigh who ran the famous Chicago brothel, the Everleigh Club. Abbott also details the religious reformers' fight to shut down the club and Chicago's "vice" district, then called the Levee. Besides enjoying a colorful depiction of early 1900s Chicago, I learned a few historical tidbits.

At the time, there was hysteria about "white slavery" which is what nowadays we would call sex trafficking. There were stories abounding of young girls kidnapped from Europe and brought to the U.S. to work in brothels. Also at risk were young women from rural U.S. towns who were duped by big city men promising marriage. From what I gather, these things did happen although they were often exaggerated by religous social reformers for various nefarious and not so nefarious reasons.

Just last month I noticed a news article about a huge prostitution bust. The last sentence of the article struck me because it uses the word slavery to describe the situation just like they did in the book: "These kids are victims. This is 21st century slavery," Allen said. "They lack the ability to walk away." (you can read the article Here)

Yes, technically, many underage boys and girls in the sex trade are pretty much slaves. But, I do find the usage of the term odd, especially back in the 1900s when the slavery of African American people was a very recent memory, and I believe calling it 'slavery,' especially qualifying it as "white slavery," inescapably has some racist undertones, especially back in the day. (This in no way means that I am belittling the horrendous global sex trade that boys and girls are victims of)

Another interesting thing I learned from the book is how prostitutes at the time where generally seen as victims in need of rescue. And how later, society began to blame them; as they began to be seen as dirty and immoral much like the present. Now prostitutes take the blame and are more likely to be arrested and charged than a john, a pimp, or a madam.

Another thing to consider was the passage of the Mann Act or the White Slave Trade Act which banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes.” Check wikipedia for more here. Unsurprisingly, the Mann Act ended up being used disproportionately against African American men and it has often been used to prosecute men for having sex with underage women (taken from wikipedia.)

One thing I'm glad that Abbbott pointed out in her book was that as a result of the "white slavery era" the Illinois State Assembly in 1913 investigated the link between prostitution and wages; they actually put department stores like Sears on the stand which resulted in Illinois passing some of the first minimum wage laws. Let's here it for treating the cause of the problem, not the symptoms, if only that happened more often in the U.S.

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