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

Jessica R. Pliley

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.

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