Women on the move: sex work and sex trafficking in the 1950s South

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University of Alabama Libraries

"Women on the Move: Sex Work and Sex Trafficking in the 1950s South" examines the commercial sex market in post World War II America. During the war, concerns about venereal disease led the government and reformers to conduct a national campaign to close down red-light districts. Federal law focused on criminalizing prostitution near military bases and informing troops about the danger of "loose women." Public health reformers concentrated their efforts on educating the public and civil officials about the importance of prevention and treatment. The campaigns against disease and the commercial sex market met with mixed success in both repressing prostitution and reducing infection rates. In the post-war era, nationally led efforts to repress prostitution faded, even as sexual commerce rebounded, and local communities in the South assumed the responsibility for purging vice from their towns. The motivation, however, shifted from a concern about public health to one about public morals. This project argues that as red-light districts closed in southern cities sex workers adapted by locating new venues and new cities to ply their trade. In the wake of the closures, geographically fluid commercial sex rings developed across the South. Sex workers negotiated the new market by migrating between commercial vice establishments that remained opened. Increased mobility afforded some women freedom and independence. However, the new system of constant movement created an opportunity for sex trafficking syndicates to exploit women through coercion and violence, tactics that would become the hallmarks of contemporary sexual slave rings. Regardless, the movement across the country, whether by force or consent, subjected migratory sex workers to the scrutiny of the FBI. Tasked with enforcing the Mann Act (1910), which criminalized the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes, the FBI worked to destroy commercial sex rings. Pursuant to the act's language, the FBI constructed sex workers in these networks as "victims" negating women's individual experiences, choices, or voices. Many of the women in these cases challenged the idea of victimization through their actions and behavior, demonstrating the adaptability of commercial sex workers in the face of a shifting sexual market.

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