Legislating Morality and the Mann Act

Crossing over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act

Beryl Satter

In June of 1910 President Taft signed the White Slave Traffic Act into law. This law, more commonly known as the Mann Act, made it a federal crime to transport women or girls across state lines with the “intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel” the woman or girl to prostitution, “debauchery,” or “any other immoral practice….” David Langum’s Crossing Over the Line provides the first comprehensive history of the Mann Act, from its inception to its retirement in 1986. Langum presents the Mann Act as a model of the dangers inherent in attempts to legislate morality. While such legislation can be politically popular, Langum argues, it is ultimately incompatible with the civil liberties of a democratic state.

The Mann Act was a product of the “White Slavery” hysteria of the early 1910s – the belief that tens of thousands of innocent young “white” girls were being kidnapped, drugged, smuggled across state lines, and sold into lives of forced prostitution by an international syndicate of foreigners. Following the lead of most Progressives-Era historians, Langum argues that the White Slavery craze was largely an expression of middle-class fears about rapid urbanization, immigration, and changing norms among young working-class women. The Mann Act was a vaguely worded, sloppily conceptualized response to public hysteria over a largely non-existent problem.

Not surprisingly, federal officials were unable to discover many “white slavers.” They therefore used the Mann Act to criminalize the interstate transport of voluntary prostitutes. Some legal experts realized that such prosecution might be unconstitutional. Did Congress have the right to regulate the private purposes of individual travelers? Did not even immoral people have the right to cross state lines if they wished? These scruples were ignored, however, in the face of widespread public enthusiasm for federal prosecution of “lechers” and “libertines.” In apparent deference to such public outcries, the Mann Act’s reach was extended beyond its initial target of involuntary prostitution. Judges ruled that taking a woman across state lines with mere intent to engage in sexually immoral behavior fell within the Mann Act’s purview, as did the transportation of women for the purposes of sexual “immorality” that was entirely consensual and non-commercial.

As a result, a broad range of behaviors, from seductions and adulterous affairs to long-standing consensual relationships between unmarried adults, became federal crimes if in their course a state line was crossed. The Mann Act provided a means for small-town busybodies to bring the wrath of the government down upon their neighbors. It opened the door to blackmail, as reports emerged of women luring their lovers across state lines in order to exact payment from them. It dramatically expanded the purview of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the F.B.I.) by defining private behaviors and even intentions as federal crimes. Most sinister of all, by criminalizing behaviors that were so widespread, the Mann Act provided Federal prosecutors with enormous prosecutorial discretion; it gave them a ruse under which to harass “undesirables” whose behavior was otherwise law-abiding. As Langum demonstrates, these undesireables included petty gangsters, black men who dared to consort openly with white women, and people holding radical political beliefs.

The reach of the Mann Act could be so easily expanded because many Americans of the 1910s and 1920s did not distinguish between a sexually active woman and a prostitute; because the law’s wording was non-specific; and because the bureaucracy established to eradicate white slavery was inclined to reinterpret “white slave” as prostitute and “white slaver” as pimp in order to justify its own continued existence. The most important reason for the continuation of the Mann Act long after its initial impetus had disappeared was political. Before the 1970s any attempt to limit the Mann Act was met with public outrage; Congress found it politically impossible to amend or repeal a law that targeted seducers and libertines.

Social and cultural historians may find Langum’s descriptions of specific Mann Act indictments, which make up a large part of the book, of interest for their evidence of a small-town, pre-sexual revolution America teeming with vamps, seducers, adulterers, strip joints and joy-riding couples engaging in apparently non-anxiety producing sexual relations. Crossing the Line is basically a historically-informed legal history, however, and not a social or cultural history viewed through a legal prism. It is not a book one should look to for new insights into the history of sexuality. Indeed, Langum occasionally seems a bit insensitive to the larger cultural meaning of the legal shifts he charts. For example, Langum demonstrates that the Mann Act, which originated as a law to safeguard innocent women, was soon attacked for its ostensible use by “unscrupulous women” to blackmail innocent men. This change from picturing women as threatened innocents to threatening seducers is typical of the broader early twentieth-century shift, analyzed by Joanne Meyerowitz and other historians, from viewing women as passionless victims to victimizers or “gold diggers.” While the sexually innocent woman had symbolized Victorian ideals of moral righteousness, by the 1920s the sexually active woman had become both the celebrated symbol of modern vitality and the feared symbol of unregulated urban life.(1) In this context, the changing conceptualization of Mann Act “victims” can be seen as a vivid example of the ways that female sexuality is treated as a screen for cultural anxieties. Langum instead assumes that white slavery accounts were the product of sexual hysteria, while equally unsubstantiated accounts of a “small army of female blackmailers” are hard truth. More sensitivity to cultural context would be beneficial here.

Langum’s major point, however, is not to illuminate transformations in sexuality but to demonstrate the dangers of coercive moral laws. On this front the book succeeds beautifully. It is a sobering, convincing, and timely warning on the futility, and the dangers, of legislating morality.

Beryl Satter Rutgers University


1. Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (Chicago, 1988), pp. 117-139.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History

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