Enacted in 1910, the Mann Act, commonly referred to as the White Slave Law, was a response to the “white slave panic” of the late 19th and early 20th century. Sold as a way of protecting vulnerable women, this law prohibited the transportation of women across state lines. However, rather than rescue girls forced into prostitution, this law was overwhelmingly used to prosecute consensual interracial relationships and extramarital affairs. The Mann Act profoundly impacted Americans and has ongoing implications for the fight for sex workers’ rights.
The Mann Act emerged in a period of heightened moral panic and social anxieties about prostitution and the changing social status of women and minorities. Driven by the debunked belief that inter-state prostitution networks were flourishing, Congress sought to address this issue through federal legislation. The act claimed to protect vulnerable (white) women, however in practice this law did not protect anyone.
The law’s broad language and ambiguous definitions provided authorities with excessive discretion, allowing them to wield it as a tool to prosecute consensual sexual relationships. In particular, Black men found themselves disproportionately targeted and unfairly accused of “transporting” white women across state lines for immoral purposes.
The Mann Act became a potent weapon in perpetuating racial prejudice and discrimination. Fueled by deeply ingrained biases, authorities manipulated the law to assert control over the intimate relationships between consenting adults. This not only reinforced racial and gender stereotypes, but also created a climate of fear and persecution for interracial couples.
The Mann Act has never been repealed, but has been somewhat amended over time.
The law’s lingering effects have hindered efforts to advance sex workers’ rights and has impeded progress towards a more inclusive and equitable society. In light of recent federal legislation aimed at “protecting” women and children from sexual exploitation, it’s important to understand how these laws have been applied in the past so we can make better choices in the future.
The Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.
Nagle, Jill. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge, 1997.
This volume provides a unique perspective on sex work and the sex industry by featuring self-identified feminist sex workers and their allies. Carol Leigh’s chapter, “Inventing Sex Work,” is included in this collection. The book draws from various feminist theories and perspectives, offering a comprehensive exploration of the topic.
Leigh, Carol. “Women of vision oral history interview.” Interview by Alexandra Juhasz. Women of vision: 18 histories in feminist film & video, The Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. December 2, 1995. Video.
In this interview, Carol Leigh discusses feminism, media, AIDS, and her work in video. She reflects on her projects, including the documentary “Whore in the Gulf” and a video involving the American flag. The interview provides a personal and insightful glimpse into Leigh’s creative process and thoughts.
Leigh, Carol. Autobiography of a Whore: The Demystification of the Sex Work Industry. 1983.
Carol Leigh’s poetry collection provides a firsthand account of her experiences in the sex work industry. Through her narrative, readers gain insight into the realities and challenges faced by sex workers.
Leigh, Carol. Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Work of Scarlet Harlot. 2004
Scarlot Harlot, unrepentant whore, activist and artist, is a brazen, brainy hooker. Since the late seventies, Scarlot Harlot (a.k.a. Carol Leigh) has written, performed and produced work in a variety of genres on women’s issues and on her experiences in the sex industry.
Carol Leigh: an interview. Carol Leigh; Ayanna U’Dongo; Charles Rice. 1993. Streaming video file.
This interview provides an in-depth exploration of Carol Leigh’s role in coining the term “sex worker” and her contributions to worker’s rights. Leigh’s use of performance and video to educate audiences about sex work and advocate for sex workers’ rights is highlighted.
Genzlinger, Neil. “Carol Leigh, Who Sought a New View of Prostitution, Dies at 71.” The New York Times, November 18, 2022. Link to the obituary.
Whiting, Sam. “Carol Leigh, who coined the term ‘sex work’ and fought to puncture taboos about it, dies at 71.” San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2022. Link to the obituary.