Taming Passion for the Public Good: Policing Sex in the Early Republic

By Mark E. Kann | Go to book overview

6
Policing Prostitution

Public officials in the early Republic had the unquestionable authority to police prostitution. Generally, they could count on parental, political, and judicial support for their efforts to arrest prostitutes and to shutdown brothels, and they expected the concurrence of neighbors, ministers, and reformers for crusades against public licentiousness and commercial sex. Given so much support, policing prostitution became the ultimate testing ground for determining how serious, how dedicated, and how steadfast politicians were when it came to policing sex in early America. We shall see in this chapter that their commitment to policing sex was quite limited. It was a relatively low-priority matter for politicians and their public agenda.

During the colonial period, there was not much prostitution to police. People complained about “debauchery” in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, but “there was relatively little commercial sex in the colonies and the early republic.”1 Barbara Hobson claims that moral reformers “discovered” prostitution as a troublesome social problem in the first decades of nineteenth century.2 They interpreted prostitution as a manifestation of widespread licentiousness among both males and females, and they urged public officials to prosecute offenders consistently, to punish them severely, and altogether to eradicate the practice—despite the fact that, historically, prostitution had been “resistant to nearly all efforts to suppress it.”3 Politicians and other public officials verbally agreed on the need to attack prostitution but then used their discretion to decide whether to police it. Usually, they chose to tolerate it among male patrons and only periodically prosecute it among female sex workers.

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Taming Passion for the Public Good: Policing Sex in the Early Republic
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • 1 - In the Shadow of Patriarchal Authority 1
  • 2 - Resilient Patriarchal Authority 23
  • 3 - The Need to Police Sex 49
  • 4 - Policing Impassioned Men 77
  • 5 - Policing Women’s Sex Lives 103
  • 6 - Policing Prostitution 129
  • 7 - The Patriarchal Core of Liberalism 161
  • Notes 183
  • Bibliography 213
  • Index 229
  • About the Author 237
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