Prostitution in the United States – a Brief History

Prostitution has had a long history in the United States. Throughout the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, prostitution has enjoyed various levels of legality and safety, though has never been truly accepted, and has always put its professionals on the edges of society – at some points, further than others. Below, we will discuss a brief (but exciting!) history of Prostitution in the United States.

The 18th Century

The American Armed Forces enabled or begotten the USA’s sex industry, forcing large groups of young men to live far away from their families. Prostitution revolved largely around the American Revolution, when women followed groups of soldiers as they moved around the country and attended their sexual needs. 

Army sergeants were not always enthused by their presence and were worried that their troops would succumb not to opposing forces, but venereal diseases (STIs). 

The 19th Century

In the 19th century, brothels became a large part of the entertainment industry. Men could visit all classes of establishment for a meal, a drink, a show, and/or sex, all in the same place. Though illegal, law enforcement often took bribes, and any attempts to discourage or legislate were struck down as being “not in the best interests” of the general public. 

The “industry” reached new heights during the gold rush in the United States, outranking both shipping and alcohol as the top industry in America. 

During the US civil war, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington was inundated with women, there to entertain the troops of General Joseph Hooker’s Army – hence why the term “Hooker” was coined. 

The ubiquity of prostitution in the 19th century led to creation of the Page Act of 1875 which made bringing women into the United States for the purposes of prostitution illegal. 

General Joseph Hooker

The 20th Century

Newspapers reported the current existence of 65,000 white slaves in America around 1890, who were presumed to be almost exclusively “forced” to work in prostitution. When the FBI was formed in the early 1900’s, they interviewed brothel employees to ask if they’d been enslaved, and it turned out only a very small number of these people were. 

Around World War I, The Chamberlain-Kahn Act gave law enforcement the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having VD. If a woman was to test positive, that constituted proof of prostitution. 

In 1938 federal funds were allocated to curb the spread of VD, which were then doubled once America entered World War II. Laws restricting the movement of prostitutes were made in an attempt to keep prostitution away from military bases. 

In the 1960’s, with the introduction of birth control, living conditions for prostitutes completely changed. Massage parlors became unlegislated in New York, and so a lot of these establishments became brothels. In Nevada, brothels were legislated, and things seemed like they were going in a positive direction. 

Sex workers (a term coined in this era) began to write books and speak openly and positively about their experiences. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical, was made into a movie. The sex industry enjoyed an openness not yet seen in America. COYOTE, a sex worker rights group, was formed to advocate positive change. 

Throughout the 90’s there were no real change to America’s laws on sex work. Madams were sentenced while their clients went without punishment, and political leaders were ‘penalized’ with only a reprimand or encouragement to resign upon admitting that they’d paid for sex. 

The 21st Century 

Today, prostitution largely remains illegal throughout the United States, and these laws are largely drafted with the aim of “preventing human trafficking”. Street prostitution remains very common, as do brothels, and, though also illegal, escort services are quite common, advertising in the backs of some publications by terming themselves as “bodywork”. 

Onlyfans, established 2016, is hugely popular, and has only grown during the last 3 years and the pandemic, as well as webcam work generally. In general, the internet continues to be a flourishing market for sex workers and the porn industry. 

People making a living working far removed from their clients online, provides boundaries and levels of safety not previously experienced. However, the sharing of digital content without permission runs rampant which can cause huge issues for sex workers, but the medium is by far the (physically) safest for sex workers to date.

Wrapping it Up

From the 18th through the 20th century, sex workers in the United States saw an awful lot of discrimination and lack of physical and social protection from both a federal perspective, and from their communities. 

While the 21st century has provided new and physically safer avenues for sex workers to practice their trades, they come with a larger variety of safety and security concerns that become more nuanced by the day. 

In the 21st century, let’s hope and work towards decriminalization and legalization. We sincerely hope we get there soon.