Protected and Policed

Regulating Desire: From the Virtuous Maiden to the Purity Princess
By J. Shoshanna Ehrlich

Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI
By Jessica R. Pliley
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, 293 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Anne Gray Fischer


In the final weeks of April, Congress closed a deal on the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a contentious sex-trafficking bill that had been tethered to the confirmation of the attorney general. Passage of the bill—and Loretta Lynch’s historic assumption of the office as its first African American woman, after an overlong delay—hinged on language that would prohibit the use of victims’ restitution funds for abortions. Ultimately, senators brokered a compromise, and the bill passed. The noncontroversial measures in the bill beefed up the state’s power to surveil, police, and prosecute an expanded category of alleged perpetrators of sex trafficking, while failed amendments included creating social supports for those most vulnerable to exploitation: homeless youth. This episode delivered a perfect snapshot of our twisted sexual and racial politics: a bill that promised to enrich the power of law enforcement on behalf of women held the top enforcer of law in the country, a woman of color, hostage, because Congress was scrimmaging over the shredded remains of women’s access to reproductive autonomy.

In an article for Slate on April 21, Josh Voorhees gave voice to the media consensus: “It remains unclear,” he wrote, “why the Senate GOP decided the human-trafficking bill was the right vehicle for a largely unrelated fight about abortion, and a completely unrelated one about Lynch.” For feminists, of course, these are not separate issues, but rather tightly woven threads in the larger political fabric that enfolds women’s bodies. Women’s inequality is crucial to maintaining the nested structures of family, church, workplace, and state. A political revision to some women’s lives in one setting triggers reverberations throughout this sprawling, interlocking hierarchy of power; thus, state efforts to protect some women are bound up with the targeting and confining of others, from homeless youth living in the crosshairs of structural predation, to the attorney general-in-waiting. As Jessica Pliley writes in Policing Sexuality, “Laws intended to police sex trafficking rarely benefit those who have been trafficked; instead these laws mark women as bodies to be policed.” This is how a bill ostensibly designed to protect victims of trafficking can become ammunition to fortify the carceral state, which disproportionately locks up men and women of color; or a potential tool to further constrict access to abortion for poor women; or a stage for a political spectacle to bar Lynch from her office.

In Regulating Desire, J. Shoshanna Ehrlich argues that the “purity ideal” animates the political wrangling over the role of the state in women’s lives, providing the justification for laws that “are both potentially liberating and stifling.” Despite a few adaptations over time, the core tenets of the purity ideal are remarkably durable: womanhood is best expressed through domesticity and private dependence, and women’s sexual lives are safest, and most worthy of protection, when they happen at home, preferably in wedlock. This purity ideal has historically been loaded with eligibility restrictions—such as prevailing racialized sexual hierarchies that presumed people of color were inherently immoral and degraded—and it was gender specific, as straight white men’s sexual purity was more of a suggested alternative than a social imperative.

The history Ehrlich recounts is not about contests over the legitimacy or desirability of the purity ideal, but rather, about reform efforts “designed to encode the value of female virtue into law based upon a set of assumptions about [young women’s] sexuality.” Best read as a collection of linked essays, Regulating Desire presents five episodes across one hundred and fifty years when female virtue was critical to the construction and deployment of state protection of women’s bodies: antebellum campaigns to criminalize male seduction of unmarried women; the social purity movement to raise the age of consent; Progressive Era efforts to detain and rehabilitate “problem girls”; Great Society and liberal 1970s policies to assist pregnant teens; and Reagan Era policies to implement abstinence-only sex education. Historians have told the nineteenth- and turn-of-the-twentieth-century stories in great detail. But Ehrlich’s innovation is tracing the purity ideal from its antebellum moment through the culmination of “family values” politics. Regulating Desire raises a provocative question. What connects, say, early twentieth-century maternalist reformers who sought to preserve the “jewel in the crown” of young white girls’ womanhood—an expedient strategy in a political culture dominated by a separate spheres consensus, Jim Crow supremacy, and women’s disenfranchisement—to Reagan-era conservatives, who resacralized virginity after two decades of concerted feminist action to dismantle the purity ideal?

The purity ideal served contradictory ends. For example, in the antebellum campaign to criminalize men who seduced young women with fraudulent promises of marriage, the purity ideal was essential to bending a hostile state toward women’s bodily protection. Reformers drew their rhetorical power from the grim fate awaiting an unmarried woman who had been “ruined.” However, this tactic was only useful if the woman had been “spotless” prior to her seduction. In the rigid purity hierarchy, women who could not claim native-born whiteness and domesticity struggled to make claims to their bodily protection; they were not understood as victims, but became, over time, unruly targets of regulation and punishment. The campaign for seduction laws, then, was at once a radical affront to white men’s sexual privilege and a deeply conservative ratification of white women’s domestic dependence and women of color’s exploitation. These earlier reforms inaugurated the unfortunate calculus for women’s activism around issues of sexual victimization that has dogged feminists ever since. Efforts to protect some women were implicated in the marginalization of others, and struggles to equalize gendered power disparities often pivoted on deepening women’s inequality across fault lines of class and race.

Ehrlich concludes with the different ways reformers wielded the purity ideal, in particular the “liberal or feminist impulses” that distinguished earlier white women’s activism from that of latter day conservatives. As Ehrlich shows, hard-won protections for white women do not typically “trickle down,” and—rooted as they are in the implicitly racist purity ideal of white women’s domesticity and dependence—they carry with them the seeds for antifeminist and white supremacist political maneuvers. Indeed, Regulating Desire prompts readers to think critically about the unforeseen consequences of contemporary “liberal or feminist impulses.” Perhaps the larger question is not how successive generations of reformers across the political spectrum have seized on the purity ideal to achieve their political goals, but rather why, despite the ongoing revision to women’s citizenship status, the purity ideal has stubbornly retained its political currency.

While the regulation of women is on abundant display in Ehrlich’s history, their desire is conspicuously absent. This is perhaps because state policies rarely attend to individual women’s desires, but rather, to the powerful political desire to organize women into orderly, private, family units, preferably with a male head of household. What does it mean to protect and foster a woman’s consent when she either rejects or, because of her social status, is excluded from the realm of domestic virtue? In Policing Sexuality, Pliley writes that the state had to “grapple with the vexing problem of female consent.” As the twinned forces of industrialization and urbanization drew widening pools of women into the discriminatory wage labor force and commercial entertainments, a young woman’s rising economic and sexual autonomy could not exist without her economic and sexual exploitation. Across the twentieth century, the growing numbers of women who ventured out into public for both wages and pleasure troubled the divide between women’s market and sexual practices, and the expectations that proper women draw firm lines between the two. When agents of the state puzzled over the problem of women’s consent that shot through modern political economies, their interventions to untangle the knot of women’s autonomy and exploitation ultimately served to tighten it.

Policing Sexuality traces the enforcement of a single law, the White-Slave Traffic Act, or Mann Act, which is still in effect today, from its original passage in 1910. The federal Mann Act criminalized transporting women across state lines for prostitution “or any other immoral purpose.” Forged in the early-twentieth-century crucible of feminist activism that Ehrlich discusses, the Mann Act was rife with the contradictions of the purity ideal and the slippery lines between paternalism and prosecution: between, as Pliley writes, “protecting innocence or policing deviance.” “White slavery,” a term of art used interchangeably for trafficking and prostitution, immediately exposed the hidden discriminations at the heart of the purity ideal and the intended beneficiaries of protection. In her brilliant chapter detailing the history and political uses of “white slavery”—a widespread moral panic circulating amid Jim Crow segregationist policies and nativist anti-immigration campaigns—Pliley highlights the “double meaning” of “white”: racial protection and sexual purity, intertwined concepts which drew on each other for their popular meaning and political potency.

The enforcement logics of the Mann Act flowed from this racial and sexual hierarchy of purity. Enforcement fell to the Bureau of Investigation, and later, the FBI. Through the bureau’s investigations into tens of thousands of cases of suspect sexuality across the country—which activated local and state authorities, and even briefly deputized middle-class white men to serve as federal agents of surveillance and regulation—it achieved exponential growth and professional consolidation in a matter of decades. While historians have devoted great attention to the FBI’s surveillance and policing of political activists, in Pliley’s dramatic recovery of the buildup of the FBI, she exposes the centrality of sexuality to the legitimization and deployment of state police powers.

In the conservative bureaucratic culture of the FBI, preserving and protecting family units became the FBI’s top investigatory priority. When, in 1917, the Supreme Court upheld a broad interpretation of “any immoral purpose,” to include noncommercial and consensual sex acts ranging from adultery to seduction, the FBI became empowered to enforce the Mann Act “as a bulwark in defense of traditional gender”—and, we could add, racial—“roles,” writes Pliley. From a law designed to police prostitution, the Mann Act was transformed into a broader regime of taming “disorderly” sexual practices. As Pliley writes, “It should not surprise us that a law designed to police prostitution also policed domesticity, given the centrality of women to both, and male sex privilege in both.” But in the enforcement of the Mann Act, she notes, FBI agents encountered women who upended the popular narratives of women’s victimization. Were wives who supported their husbands through prostitution, or mothers who fled their families, “victims or complicit criminals”?

The key paradox in the Mann Act was that its enforcement “rendered women as both victims and targets of sexual surveillance,” explains Pliley. The law criminalized women who betrayed their functions as wives, mothers, and daughters, requiring the unprecedented construction of federal prisons for rising numbers of women who had been convicted under the Mann Act. But the law also empowered abandoned wives, seduced women, rape victims, and their families—all typically white—to receive a slightly greater likelihood of legal redress than they might have otherwise enjoyed in local courts. Across the modernizing twentieth century, as women disrupted the boundary between “good” and “bad,” the FBI expanded its capacity to fortify moral borders through its muscular enforcement of sexist and segregationist norms that maintained the patriarchal family.

Historically, women’s protection has rarely been synonymous with their self-determination. “The prioritization of law enforcement over victim services functions to treat victims as suspect and criminal,” Pliley concludes. In the ongoing contests to control the meanings and practices of women’s bodies, campaigns to achieve protection and self-determination for all women aren’t built in collaboration, but too often, in competition. As both histories show, efforts to protect women can be swiftly converted into tactics to police women, and a single protective law does not act equally and universally upon all women, but rather produces divergent worlds of experience, where already vulnerable women are both overpoliced and underprotected. For feminists, this means that walking the perilous line between women’s protection and punishment is both a political mandate and a certain hazard. As we walk this line, we must keep in mind the full breadth of possibility in the creation and enforcement of protective laws, vigilantly asking of each new law: who—and what—is being protected? And who—and what—is being policed?

Anne Gray Fischer is a PhD student in History at Brown University. Her dissertation traces the policing of prostitution and the making of the carceral state in the US from the 1930s through the 1980s.

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy