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In Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI, Jessica R. Pliley tracks the history of the FBI in their efforts to curb and reduce prostitution in America. In 1910, the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, was enacted to protect women (and young girls) from prostitution and sexual exploitation. Pliley describes how throughout much of FBI´s history enforcing the Mann Act, cases in which white women (as described in the name of the of the act) were deemed victims got precedent over cases in which (especially) Black women were trafficked and forced into prostitution. Race was not the only characteristic in which cases were chosen and prosecuted. Age, virginity, prior relationships and parental involvement also played a significant role in whether the FBI took on cases and investigated them.
During the early years of the FBI, the origin of the prostituted women was believed to be mostly foreign. Because white slavery was therefore deemed a foreign problem (caused by immigrants, both legal and illegal), the federal government got increasingly involved, trying to barr immigrant women and foreign men (described as procuring women) from entering America. However, the FBI soon turned their attention to the domestic threat of American girls being lured into prostitution by the promise of jobs, or by men who romanced, seduced them and promised marriage. Even though immigrant women were still scrutinized and investigated, the focus of the FBI slightly changed to the transporting of American born women over state lines and to domestic prostitution and kidnapping.
With the growth of the Bureau, the military also joined the policing of prostitutes. As American troops were mobilizing, prostitutes were viewed as potentially contagious in terms of veneral diseases, and single women were viewed as promiscuous and potentially contagious. Military men who visited prostitutes were often excused or given a slap on the wrist, whereas women were viewed as criminals. At the same time, as part of the Mann Act, a vague clause that described the availability of the FBI to investigate and prosecute based on “any other immoral purpose”, resulted in the FBI focusing much attention on cases of adultery, bigamy and familial illcit sex, but also cases of forced and commercial prostitution. During the 1930s, the FBI returned to focusing more on organized sex trafficking (even though research into the matter revealed that trafficking rings and brothels were only loosely organized).
Pliley states that even though the history of prostitution and the mission of the FBI in terms of prostitution has changed throughout the decades, laws still mostly ignore male customers while the policing of women continues. At the same time, age, race and previous sexual history still impact how we view prostitutes, how anti-trafficking laws are enacted, the outcome of charges as well as sentencing.
Pliley has written an interesting and unique book detailing the history of the FBI and its involvement and policing of prostitution in America. The stories of men and women, officers, madams, pimps and prostitutes provide a vivid and detailed story of the Bureau. The book is a valued addition to studies in History, Sociology, Criminal Justice, Women's Studies and Human Sexuality. It is also of interest to those concerned with the history of the FBI, the history of anti-trafficking and prostitution laws in America, or both. Along with detailed and at times rather grumsome stories of women and men, and with plenty of examples of how laws were enacted and the focus of the FBI changed with the times, Pliley has managed to write an easy to understand history of the Bureau.
© 2015 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include Women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.