Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI

America’s first anti–sex trafficking law, meant to protect women, more often resulted in the policing of women’s sexual behavior.

Excerpted from Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI by Jessica R. Pliley (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.


The Mann Act and Federal Sexual Surveillance

In October 1920, an Oklahoma City federal judge sent Hewitt Ratcliffe to jail for the crime of white slavery. Earlier that summer, police arrested Hewitt’s wife Janie when bellboys at the Lee-Huckins Hotel informed them that she was practicing prostitution in the hotel. The bellboys had been approached by Hewitt, who offered them a generous tip if they would arrange “dates” for his wife. When the city police discovered that Hewitt and Janie had come to Oklahoma from Little Rock, Arkansas, they immediately contacted the Bureau of Investigation because they suspected a violation of the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act. Passed in 1910 to protect women and girls from forced prostitution and sex trafficking, the federal statute made it illegal to transport, or cause the transport of, women over state lines for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery, or “any other immoral purpose.” The Bureau of Investigation, as it was called until 1935 when the agency would be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), enforced this antitrafficking law.

The Bureau built a strong case against Hewitt Ratcliffe. Janie stated that she had started dating Hewitt in 1914 and by 1918 they had married in Atlanta. Hewitt claimed to be a travelling salesman, but made most of his money by gambling. He travelled throughout the country looking for poker games, and Janie always accompanied him on the road. About a year after their wedding, after a particularly brutal losing streak in Kansas City, Hewitt recommended that Janie should “hustle,” or prostitute herself, to earn some extra cash for the couple. When she balked at his suggestion, he gave her what she called “an unmerciful beating.” From this point onward, she hustled for him everywhere they went. Using bellboys, Hewitt arranged all of her customers, ensuring that she usually brought in fifty dollars a night, which he used to stake his gambling habit. With a bevy of witnesses prepared to testify against him, Hewitt chose to plead guilty with the promise that he would not serve more than two years in jail; instead he served only eight months. For the Bureau, Hewitt represented a professional pimp “of the worst type,” and was exactly the type of scoundrel that the Mann Act was aimed at stopping.

The ranks of prostitutes had been growing steadily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, becoming spectacularly visible in red-light districts throughout the country. Fears about the prevalence of prostitution led to the rise of the white slavery narrative that asserted—in various forms— that vicious procurers seduced, coerced, lured, tricked, or forced girls and young white women into brothels far from their homes and the protections those homes offered. Antivice activists thought of white slavery as an international and transnational crime, and they were particularly fearful that a young girl would be stolen from one country and placed in a brothel in another country where she would not speak the language and have no friends. Fear of sex trafficking prompted the United States to amend its immigration laws, to join the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the “White Slave Traffic,” and to create state-level antitrafficking laws. Such fears culminated in the passage of the federal White Slave Traffic Act, which was intended to address domestic trafficking. Much of the public discussion of white slavery characterized it as a crime that was connected to immigration and immigrants. Some reformers argued that young women who migrated alone to the United States remained especially vulnerable to exploitation, whereas others suggested that white slavery, itself, was a crime brought to the United States by deviant immigrants. Woven throughout discussions of prostitution and white slavery, and the enforcement of anti–white slavery provisions, a tension developed between punishing and expelling foreign-born prostitutes and protecting native-born white women from prostitution. Thus, white slavery was a term that evoked racialized understandings of female vulnerability, prompted vigorous debates about prostitution, rampant sexuality, and urban life, and conjured a particular set of conceptions that rendered women as both victims and as subjects of sexual surveillance.

Sex trafficking, the problem at which the Mann Act was aimed, challenged law enforcement officials due to its inherent extrajurisdictional nature; traffickers and those trafficked moved in and out, and frequently beyond single jurisdictions. It was this very characteristic that prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the White Slave Traffic Act because local and state law enforcement could not easily reach sex traffickers and prostitutes who fled to other areas of the country. The national and international scope of sex trafficking necessitated national laws like the White Slave Traffic Act. After Congress passed the Mann Act, the Bureau of Investigation took up enforcement of this new national law, and just as the Mann Act expanded the jurisdiction of the federal government to police sex, so too did the law significantly expand the presence of the Bureau throughout the country.

The Mann Act was the product of the Progressive Era’s faith that thorough investigation could lead to solutions for any social ill. As more and more observers fretted about the growing visibility of prostitution in American cities, the profitability of sex trafficking, and the dangers of white slavery, they couched these concerns into calls for investigations by journalists, social scientists, and government officials. From 1910 to 1917, vice commissions were established in 43 different cities to examine the prevalence, causes, and remedies of prostitution. But these investigations did not occur just at the municipal level: the federal government, concerned as it was with the national borders and migration, launched several white slavery investigations. Taken together, these investigations prompted calls for legislation, resulting in the passage of a flurry of local antivice laws, state-level antitrafficking laws, and the Mann Act. Though the investigations that led to the Mann Act helped to establish the fact of white slavery, the Bureau still had to puzzle out exactly what white slavery was and was not, and, more problematically, it had to contend with that vague and expansive category of “any other immoral purpose.” Did the law only cover sexual slavery characterized by violence and bondage, or did it also apply to voluntary prostitution? Could “any other immoral purpose” apply to consensual, noncommercial interstate sex like adultery and fornication? In addressing these questions, the Bureau had to grapple with the vexing problem of female consent. The enforcement of the Mann Act yielded strange outcomes that were shaped by the Bureau’s understanding of the “any other immoral purpose” clause at any given moment. This is a story about how addressing these challenging questions helped to build the bureaucratic culture of the Bureau of Investigation, and also reflected the pervasive sexually conservative values of the agency.

A Border Had to Be Crossed

This is also a story of traversing, maintaining, and negotiating boundaries. For the White Slave Traffic Act to be invoked a geographic border had to be crossed. The law applied to travel over state borders, territorial borders, and borders that hemmed in Native American reservations. But it also applied to areas under federal jurisdiction—such as Washington, DC, and colonial possessions. National borders came into play as well because U.S. white slavery policy was preoccupied with halting international sex trafficking; the distinctions between the international and national, the external and the domestic, and the foreign and native-born emerged with particular salience. Other borders were more figurative. As a federal antiprostitution law enforced by an agency without the ability to arrest or detain Americans, the lines between state and federal jurisdiction and authority had to be constantly mediated by the Bureau of Investigation. The object of protection (or policing)— prostitutes—revealed the permeability of the boundaries between public and private sexual behavior. Janie Ratcliffe was a public prostitute who had been trafficked to Oklahoma by her pimp Hewitt Ratcliffe. But she was also a wife and in pursuing Hewitt the Bureau denied the legitimacy of their marriage because it did not conform to standards of a monogamous marriage and respectability. As the Bureau enforced the “any other immoral purpose” clause, the lines between prostitutes and wives, bad women and good women, and the brothel bedroom and the marital bedroom became increasingly blurred. The Bureau used the law to police what they considered inappropriate sexuality and those bodies that deviated from respectability.

Gender conservatism permeated the Bureau’s Mann Act investigations, which were routinely among the largest category of cases pursued by the Bureau during the years before World War II.

Implementing the law, the Bureau revealed a peculiar logic in the state’s conception of female citizenship. From the early-twentieth-century perspective, women’s citizenship was defined through her sexual contract with her husband (the marriage contract), and U.S. policy towards women generally emphasized women’s reproductive service to the nation. Between 1855 and 1922, the most common way for immigrant women to achieve citizenship was through marriage to a U.S. citizen (native born or naturalized). More importantly any and all women could become mothers of the next generation of U.S. citizens. Her private domestic service—wifely labor—serviced a public goal, though contained in domesticity, under a male head of household. During the Progressive Era, public women, a euphemism for prostitute, and women in public spaces—like the growing numbers of wage-earning women, the feminists taking to the streets demanding the vote, and migrating women moving from countryside to city—upset these conventional understandings of women’s roles. In the case of migrating sex workers, they were perceived as a threat to the health of the body politic because they could spread venereal disease to customers, who in turn could introduce it to the marital bed. But she was also a threat because she might mother future citizens. With all of these anxieties—about women in public, about racial decline, about the spread of venereal disease—U.S. anti–white slavery policy tended towards criminalizing sex work primarily through the use of state power. The Mann Act helped construct this punitive state by closely monitoring the mobility of sex workers. By casting a wider net to police women’s illicit sexuality more broadly, it managed to bring a wide variety of women under the gaze of the state.

The Bureau’s enforcement of the Mann Act before World War II exhibited an uncanny vision of women as either moral wives and mothers or immoral and vulnerable loose women. The governing gender system configured wives and prostitutes as opposites, connected, if at all, where a man occupied the role of anonymous “John” in the space of the brothel, while also acting as husband when he returned to the domestic space of his home. Moving between spaces, in and out of disreputable sites and the sentimentalized home, the individual man could traverse respectability and vice with little risk to personal reputation, class standing, or status as a citizen. This was in stark contrast to the gendered world that women negotiated, which cleaved to standards of sexual behavior and an idealization of sexual purity in the unmarried, and sexual fidelity in the married. For women, there was no risk-free traversing of space. Because marriage prospects depended on notions of sexual virginity, whispers that cast doubt on a single woman’s behavior could undermine her economic future. A failed wife-to-be, either a woman who violated sexual norms and was rejected from the marriage market, or an abandoned wife, deserted by her husband, or a widowed wife, left without resources by a dead husband could all cross into prostitution. In a labor market defined rigidly by sex, women’s ability to support themselves and any children could be severely compromised.

The double standard of sexuality, which allowed men’s promiscuity while severely restricting women’s sexual behavior to marriage, shaped early-twentieth-century conceptions of victimhood, protection, and morality as well. The Bureau’s Mann Act investigations reflected this double standard. In choosing some victims to protect, while ignoring the fate of other women seeking aid, the Bureau reinforced this double standard. The Bureau consistently advocated on behalf of women who shared the same constellation of characteristics: they were white, young, and had reputations for being previously chaste. Sex workers who did not fit this narrow mold frequently found themselves subjected to state surveillance and punitive intervention. In the early twentieth-century, racialized conceptions of morality excluded nonwhite women from the category of the sexually virtuous. When African American women turned to the Bureau for help, they rarely received it.

The FBI’s enforcement of the Mann Act acted as a bulwark in defense of traditional gender roles at a time when American women were experiencing incredible social and political change. By federalizing the fight against prostitution, the Bureau sought to protect American daughters from being lured into brothels, thus retaining their chastity for marriage. Sex workers were seen as victims of others’ greed. Yet, in its fight against trafficking, the Bureau did not challenge prostitution’s exploitative characteristics nor the right of male customers to purchase sex. After the Supreme Court empowered the “any other immoral purpose” clause of the law, the agency used its investigations to uphold ideals of chaste daughters, faithful wives, and women as dependent domestic beings.

The White Slave Traffic Act fell well within the Progressive Era’s legal reform agenda dedicated to protecting innocent young women from sexual exploitation, but it had the added effect of federalizing this “protection.” The laws passed in this larger effort often had the consequence of closely policing young women’s sexuality, frequently criminalizing their sexual activity, and punishing young women under the guise of protecting them. As the Bureau considered how best to enforce the Mann Act and protect America’s young women from sexual slavery, it had to puzzle out whether the Congress intended the law to protect innocent young women or to police professional prostitutes. The lines between these two categories of women often collapsed, as investigations hinged on special agents’ ideas of female innocence and reputation, as well as young women’s own volition. In Mann Act investigations, protection could easily slip into paternalism and prosecution. The central question confronting special agents was this: were victims of the Mann Act really victims? Or were they criminals complicit in the violation of the law? The tension between protecting and policing was ever present.

This tension spoke directly to the challenges posed by recognizing female sexual activity in the early twentieth century. Narratives of white slavery minimized female sexual assertion by arguing that no woman would sell sex in the marketplace unless she was under duress, whether that duress was the result of economics, fraud, deceit, or enslavement. In these tales, the conditions of women’s lives produced a situation where consent to sex work was rendered meaningless. But as the Bureau began to enforce a law that had been passed to “protect” young women, it encountered a dynamic social world where female sexual desires and consent could not be so easily swept aside. In October 1921, only free from jail for a few months, Hewitt Ratcliffe was arrested again in Dallas, Texas, when city detectives swept up his new wife—Grace Ratcliffe—in a vice sting at the Adolphus Hotel. Hewitt had divorced Janie immediately after he was released from the Comanche County Jail and married Grace, with whom he had grown up and who had been his girl friend on the side for several years. At age twenty-seven and fully aware of Hewitt’s work as a gambler, Grace Ratcliffe refused to cooperate with the Bureau’s special agents as they tried to build a second case against him for violating the White Slave Traffic Act. She argued that she had chosen to prostitute herself and that Hewitt was unaware of her actions, and she adamantly refused to testify against her husband. Grace’s defense of Hewitt confounded the logic of the White Slave Traffic Act, which assumed all prostitutes to be victims. Instead it prompted the Bureau to look at her as a co-conspirator and criminal. Realizing that they were unlikely to get a Mann Act conviction with such an unwilling witness, the Bureau handed Hewitt over to Mississippi state authorities, who had a warrant out for his arrest. He was sentenced to serve five years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for fraud and forgery.

When Congress passed the Mann Act in June 1910, the Bureau had only sixty-one special agents on its payroll. Though its jurisdiction was national, in practice those agents were based in Washington, DC, and their sphere of activity centered on the mid-Atlantic states on the Eastern seaboard. Based on the vast mandate within the Mann Act the Bureau expanded rapidly. Not only did it have a new jurisdiction—Americans’ sexual behavior—but to enforce the law it also had to establish itself throughout the country, setting up field offices and local representatives in each state. When it could, the Bureau yielded prosecution of Mann Act offenders to local authorities, as it did with Hewitt Ratcliffe, a practice that in itself represents an extension of state authority. When the Bureau took on the broad and undefined authorization of the Mann Act, it stimulated federal law enforcement, but it also fortified the power of law enforcement on the local and state levels.

Historians of the FBI typically emphasize the Bureau’s role in domestic political policing of ideological and racial minorities. This preoccupation with the Bureau’s sins is certainly appropriate considering the FBI’s activities against organized labor, leftist, and civil rights organizers, but it overlooks how central policing of sexuality was to the development of the FBI as a national agency with the capacity to conduct such political surveillance. The FBI’s policing of sexuality sheds light on the conservative culture within the FBI. Gender conservatism permeated the Bureau’s Mann Act investigations, which were routinely among the largest category of cases pursued by the Bureau during the years before World War II. Though American society went through a revolution in ideas and values about women’s roles, marriage, and sex during the years between 1900 and 1941, the Bureau consistently served as a defense against these cultural shifts. Instead it celebrated the male-headed household and the dependent wife, just as it policed prostitutes’ mobility and fought the sexual exploitation of young white women. The FBI spread nationally in order to enforce the Mann Act. The law became central to the day-to-day operations of the Bureau. Indeed, policing sexuality shaped the early history of the FBI.

Jessica R. Pliley is Assistant Professor of Women’s History at Texas State University.

Splash image from 26 September 1937 issue of This Week magazine. National Archives.