What is the Mann Act, exactly?

Earlier this week I included some references to the 1910 Mann Act (aka White Slave Traffic Act), so I thought it made sense to close the week with a quick review of that Act.

The term “white slavery” became prominent in the English language in the 19th century, and it was used by British and American (and other “Christian” or “Anglo” identified states) to refer to, broadly, any coerced labor and transportation of “European” persons by “non-European” persons, and more specifically to sexual transactions between European and non-European persons. The narratives of the “white slave trade” produced fear about “foreign men” who would “kidnap” white girls and women and force them into sex work in brothels in foreign places. These were a kind of fairy tale meant to make white girls and women fearful of being in public places (like a cafe) alone, and to be paranoid about the presence of “foreign” men and women in those same public places.

Lorna Barton (played by Ethel Grandin) is tempted by the procurer Bill Bradshaw (William Cavanaugh) in a cafe scene from the silent drama Traffic in Souls (1913).

In the US in particular, the term “white slavery” not only distinguished the sex trade from the African slave trade but also helped to shape narratives that performed social constructions such as “whiteness, sexual morality, class, and citizenship” (Donavan 56).

Again, the linking of race and sex in these cultural narratives serves the purpose of controlling the movement of specific groups of people who could be defined through gendered and racialized categories. The criminalization of these imagined actions served to criminalize specific persons based on these cultural narratives.

Brian Donavan, in White slave crusades: race, gender, and anti-vice activism, 1887-1917 (2006), writes:

In 1913, over 30,000 people viewed the white slavery film Traffic in Souls during its opening week in New York City, sparking controversy over its moral effect on viewers. In the years leading up to World War I, over thirty cities launched vice investigations, and forty-four states passed laws to stop coercive prostitution. At the federal level, Congress passed the Mann act, or the “White Slave Traffic Act,” in 1910, which criminalized the transfer of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.”

In its first eight years, law enforcement officials arrested over 2,000 people for Mann act violations. Kevin Mumford observes that “the ideology of white slavery was in fact a staple of early-twentieth-century American culture. […] The white slavery genre in the United States developed during a period marked by rapid urbanization, the rise of women in the workforce, and the changing racial composition of American cities.(1)

Poster for the 1913 film Traffic in Souls.

Nicole Bromfield, in her article “Sex Slavery and Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: Historical and Contemporary Parallels, Policies, and Perspectives in Social Work” (2016), puts the rhetoric of “white slave traffic” in the context of U.S. political and cultural history that included an economy that relied on the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans — men, women, and children — for enforced labor:

During the Progressive Era, for the first time in the United States, sex workers were depicted as being trafficked against their will for prostitution by male pimps who were most often portrayed as being Eastern European Jews, Chinese immigrants, Italians or other foreign men (Joslin, 2002; Sloan & Wahab, 2000; Smolak, 2013), or African American men in cities such as Chicago (Donovan, 2006). The white slave narratives portrayed innocent, white, European girls who were drugged, tricked, or imprisoned and forced into prostitution (Doezema, 1999; Wahab, 2002) or rural American women being trafficked to urban areas, often based on false promises of marriage (Addams, 1912; Donovan, 2006). (Bromfield 130)

The framing of sex work in this way allowed the distinction between the ‘‘innocent’’ and ‘‘fallen’’ woman, in which only involuntariness in the sex trade was rewarded with protection (Doezema, 1998). White ‘‘slaves’’ were in need of rescue and protection, and popular narratives by early reformers framed all white women engaged in the sex trade as sex slaves (Addams, 1912). The term ‘‘white’’ explicitly distinguished the sex trade from chattel slavery, although it also implicitly supported racism in U.S. culture by implying that sexual enslavement was that of white innocent women and was therefore worthy of alarm. Women of color, especially Asian women sold in California, were more likely to have been actual victims of sex slavery (Joslin, 2002; Wilson, 1932). The phrase also worked to compare and place white slavery on par with the wickedness of the chattel slave trade in the United States, and early reformers referred to white slavery as the ‘‘blackest’’ form of slavery in history (Bell, 1911) to make this comparison. (Bromfield 132)

Below are excerpts from the Mann Act legislation as passed in June of 1910.

One thing that stands out below is the language about supervision of any “alien” women or girls under centralized federal intelligence/record-keeping. It seems that this law provided for surveillance of women (their residence, their “parentage,” their movements, etc.), under the guise of “protecting” them, or protecting other women in the U.S.

(See the full text of the 1910 language online here.):

CHAP. 395 — An Act to further regulate interstate commerce and foreign commerce by prohibiting the transportation therein for immoral purposes of women and girls, and for other purposes.

[…]

SEC. 2. That any person who shall knowingly transport or cause to be transported, or aid or assist in obtaining transportation for, or in transporting, in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or in the District of Columbia, any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel such woman or girl to become a prostitute or to give herself up to debauchery, or to engage in any other immoral practice; or who shall knowingly procure or obtain, or cause to be procured or obtained, or aid or assist in procuring or obtaining, any ticket or tickets, or any form of transportation or evidence of the right thereto, to be used by any woman or girl in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or the District of Columbia, in going to any place for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent or purpose on the part of such person to induce, entice, or compel her to give herself up to the practice of prostitution, or to give herself up to the practice of debauchery, or any other immoral practice, whereby any such woman or girl shall be transported in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or the District of Columbia, shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment of not more than five years, or by both such fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.

SEC. 3. That any person who shall knowingly persuade, induce, entice, or coerce, or cause to be persuaded, induced, enticed, or coerced, or aid or assist in persuading, inducing, enticing or coercing any woman or girl to go from one place to another in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or the District of Columbia, for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose on the part of such person that such woman or girl shall engage in the practice of prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral practice, whether with or without her consent, […]  shall be deemed guilty of a felony

[…]

SEC. 4. That any person who shall knowingly persuade, induce, entice or coerce any woman or girl under the age of eighteen years from any State or Territory or the District of Columbia to any other State or Territory or the District of Columbia, with the purpose and intent to induce or coerce her, or that she shall be induced or coerced to engage in prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral practice, and shall in furtherance of such purpose knowingly induce or cause her to go and to be carried or transported as a passenger in interstate commerce upon the line or route of any common carrier or carriers, shall be deemed guilty of a felony

[…]

SEC. 6. That for the purpose of regulating and preventing the transportation in foreign commerce of alien women and girls for purposes of prostitution and debauchery, and in pursuance of and for the purpose of carrying out the terms of the agreement of project of arrangement for the suppression of the white-slave traffic, adopted July twenty-fifth, nineteen hundred and two, for submission to their respective governments by the delegates of various powers represented at the Paris conference and confirmed by a formal agreement signed at Paris on May eighteenth, nineteen hundred and four, and adhered to by the United States on June sixth, nineteen hundred and eight, as shown by the proclamation of the President of the United States, dated June fifteenth, nineteen hundred and eight, the Commissioner-General of Immigration is hereby designated as the authority of the United States to receive and centralize information concerning the procuration of alien women and girls with a view to their debauchery, and to exercise supervision over such alien women and girls, receive their declarations, establish their identity, and ascertain from them who induced them to leave their native countries, respectively; and it shall be the duty of said Commissioner-General of Immigration to receive and keep on file in his office the statements and declarations which may be made by such alien women and girls, and those which are hereinafter required pertaining to such alien women and girls engaged in prostitution and debauchery in this country, and to furnish receipts for such statements and declarations provided for in this act to the persons, respectively, making and filing them.

Every person who shall keep, maintain, control, support or harbor in any house or place for the purpose of prostitution, or for any other immoral purpose, any alien woman or girl within three years after she shall have entered the United States from any country, party to the said arrangement for the suppression of the white-slave traffic, shall file with the Commissioner- General of Immigration a statement in writing setting forth the name of such alien woman or girl, the place at which she is kept, and all facts as to the date of her entry into the United States, the port through which she entered, her age, nationality, and parentage, and concerning her procuration to come to this country within the knowledge of such person, and any person who shall fail within thirty days after such person shall commence to keep, maintain, control, support, or harbor in any house or place for the purpose of prostitution, or for any other immoral purpose, any alien woman or girl within three years after she shall have entered the United States from any of the countries, party to the said arrangement for the suppression of the white-slave traffic, to file such statement concerning such alien woman or girl with the Commissioner-General of Immigration, or who shall knowingly and willfully state falsely or fail to disclose in such statement any fact within his knowledge or belief with reference, to the age, nationality, or parentage of any such alien woman or girl, or concerning her procuration to come to this country, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than two thousand dollars, or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or by both such fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.

[…]

SEC. 8. That this Act shall be known and referred to as the “White-slave traffic Act.

[p.s. full citation information for referenced sources, like articles and books, are added to the Bibliography page. If I miss anything, or if you have suggestions for additional sources, just let me know!]

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