Read the full article by Hallie Lieberman at WashingtonPost.com
Rooted in racial panic, they seek to solve the wrong problem.
“Sex traffickers — these are the worst human beings on Earth — exploit our porous border to sell young girls and women into modern-day slavery,” President Trump said at his rally in El Paso last month, arguing for building of a wall on the border of Mexico and the United States.
The Trump administration has said that ending human trafficking is one of its “highest priorities.” Last year, Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which is supposed to prevent children from being sold for sex. The law led to the shutdown of Backpage.com, the Craigslist personals section and other websites because it makes a website’s owner liable for ads that “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” It also allows victims of trafficking to sue websites hosting such ads.
In theory, FOSTA, and the Trump administration’s fight against sex trafficking, is laudable. Yet historically, such legislation has really been about escalating racially rooted fears of immigration, not combating sexual violence.
More than a hundred years ago, in 1910, President William Howard Taft signed the White-Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, into law. Like FOSTA, the Mann Act was supposed to prevent sex trafficking of girls and women. The Mann Act made it a felony to transport a woman or girl across state lines for “prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Ostensibly the law was meant to protect women from being forced into prostitution. But in practice, the law ended up promoting anti-immigrant policies, harming ordinary men and women and hurting sex workers engaged in consensual acts.
The Mann Act emerged from two related motives: fear of immigrants and racism. Like today, the porous borders of a neighboring country were considered a major cause of sex trafficking in the United States. But in the early 20th century, the country bearing the blame was Canada. Chicago’s U.S. attorney, Edwin W. Sims, the co-author of the Mann Act along with Rep. James Robert Mann, warned in the book “War on the White Slave Trade” that one-third of 100 prostitutes at a brothel in Boston came from Canada.
The racism in the White-Slave Traffic Act was right there in its title. It was called white slavery to distinguish it from the recently prohibited practice of chattel slavery in the American South. Moreover, even though the text of the law didn’t say that only white girls and women were protected, in practice, few people were ever prosecuted for transporting black girls or women across state lines. Mann himself claimed that “the white-slave traffic, while not so extensive, is much more horrible than any black-slave traffic ever was in the history of the world.” And while black women and girls weren’t protected, black men were prosecuted under the act for traveling with their white girlfriends, most famously boxer Jack Johnson.
But it wasn’t just anti-black sentiment the law trafficked in. Jews, many of whom were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, were regularly targeted under the act. In 1909, drumming up support for the proposed anti-trafficking law, Sims’s book claimed: “It is the absolute fact that corrupt Jews are now the backbone of the loathsome traffic [in women] in New York and Chicago.”
The act, rooted in racist and anti-immigrant hysteria, relied on false statistics to stoke fear. “Not fewer than fifteen thousand girls have been imported into the country in the last year as white slaves,” wrote Sims in 1909. Three years later, after the Mann Act had gone into effect, Stanley W. Finch, chief of the Bureau of the Investigation (a precursor to the FBI), claimed, “Not less than 25,000 young women and girls are annually procured for this traffic.”
Hallie Lieberman, a sex historian and journalist, is the author of “Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy” and currently researching a book on the history of male sex workers.