Sex Wars and the Consolidation of Police Power

This post is part of our online roundtable on Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us

Racial justice protestors face off with police during Eric Garner protest, January 10, 2015 Seattle, Washington. (Flickr)

As other writers in this forum have noted, Anne Gray Fischer has made a compelling and necessary intervention in the historiography of urban policing in the United States by centering the experiences of Black women subjected to discretionary police power stemming from anti-prostitution campaigns and sexual policing. In her last chapter entitled “Taking Back the Night: Feminist Activisms in the Age of Broken Window Policing,” Fischer makes an important contribution to the growing historiography of post-1970s American feminism. She joins scholars such as Catherine O. Jacquet, Emily Thuma, and Melinda Chateauvert to consider different and competing feminist activisms, addressing the broad rubric of violence against women. Complicating our understandings of the “sex wars,” she shifts our attention to the equally contentious, but less well-known, fights over prostitution policy. She also maps the structural arguments offered by antiviolence feminists, often women of color, who applied an intersectional analysis to the nexus of racism, police power, and capitalism in organizations like Combahee River Collective, Wages for Housework, and the LA-based Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders. As one Wages for Housework activist recalled, antiviolence feminists in the Black Coalition offered an analysis of violence against women that differed from n other feminists because the “focus was not only on the violence of individual men against individual women, but also the violence of the State against women generally, and in particular against women of color” (175).

As innovative as these analyses were, they were ineffective. Rather, the efforts of so-called “dominance feminists” practicing what Elizabeth Bernstein has termed “carceral feminism” emerged as victorious in this debate. Dominance feminists understood the origin of women’s oppression to be patriarchy that centered straight male sexual privileges and, therefore, saw prostitution as the ultimate symbol of women’s sexual exploitation by men. Universalizing the experience of all women, these feminists argued that prostitution formed but one experience on a spectrum of women’s sexual oppression. Mindful of the burgeoning field of women’s history, they drew on the moral reform movements that fueled the white slavery hysteria of the early twentieth century, which contributed to the segregation of the urban landscape, with the police as enforcers of this segregated streetscape.

For example, Kathleen Barry, the author of Female Sexual Slavery published in 1979 and again in 1984, helped to theorize women’s subordination in prostitution, pornography, and forced marriage.Her scholarship also provided fuel for much of the outrage that would inspire Catherine MacKinnon and other dominance feminist jurists. Barry begins the book with a discussion of the anti-prostitution campaigns waged by Josephine Butler in nineteenth-century England. Barry argued that Butler made one critical tactical mistake: aligning with men in the purity movement. Barry argues that “What in fact happened was that the social purity movement by attaching itself to women’s causes was able to build a mass movement and to undermine the goals of feminist leaders like Josephine Butler.” In her simplistic analysis that always distilled everything down to men’s interests vs. women’s interests, she suggests that the men in the social purity movement co-opted Butler’s movement and then started blaming women who sold sex for their social failures. And she notes that the purity movements’ crusade against white slavery resulted in the Congressional passage of the Mann Act, which made it illegal to take a woman or girl over state lines for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery, or any other immoral purpose. Barry critiques the Mann Act writing, “The question of women’s will is entirely excluded from consideration and therefore the issue of individual liberty, so central to Butler, was entirely lost in the language of the act.”

Yet, if Kathleen Barry had been a better historian (and in all fairness, she is not a historian), she would have recognized that while Butler may have erred by closely aligning with the men in the purity movement, she split from these men over one major issue. The male-dominated social purity movement sought to use the law to enforce its moral vision. Butler knew from her many conversations with women who sold sex that the policeman was the most dangerous figure they encountered. He had the ability to detain her, subject her to medical rape, forever tar her as deviant in the eyes of the law and community, coerce her and steal from her. She noted, laws targeting women who sell sex “cannot be carried into effect by men in government livery, with sticks in their hands, whom we call policemen; the power of the State must be exceedingly restricted in this domain.” Throughout her long career Butler remained deeply suspicious of police power—especially as it related to managing prostitution and women who sold sex. This belief prompted Butler to break the alliance with the National Vigilance Association, and later start her own organization, the International Abolitionist Federation (IAF), which sought the elimination of state-run brothels (but not the criminalization of selling sex). Throughout the 1920s the IAF remained a thorn in the side of the male-dominated purity movement and the League of Nations’ Committee on the Traffic of Women, always writing in letters protesting any law or policy that would empower police. Yet, Barry missed this.

In contrast to Butler, dominance feminists of the 1980s and 1990s seemed to see little problem with aligning with the state, and therefore the police. These activists and jurists were profoundly out-of-touch with the realities of on-the-ground policing and the captiousness of discretionary policing. Even their more innovative legal experiments—arresting the men that purchased sex; sending male customers to reformatory classes—assumed “color-blind” policing and built the power of the state in new ways. They never asked, “Who runs these Johns’ schools?” “Who pays for them?” “Who runs the divergence programs?” “Who profits, professionally or monetarily?”

Prison abolitionists have rightly critiqued the inherent capitalist immorality of private prisons, even though private prisons only account for a small percentage of prisons and jails in the United States. The problem, as sociologist Jill McCorkel’s work demonstrates, is that for-profit prison companies make vast profits by diversifying the services they offer to federal, state, and local municipalities and, concomitantly, are a major the source of carceral profits. Such “services” include drug treatment programs, court-ordered counseling, and diversion programs, among others. The anti-prostitution (and anti-prostitute) laws designed by dominance feminists contributed to the further sprawl of the carceral system while providing employment for highly-educated (often, white) women like themselves, while ignoring the needs of the Black women most targeted for sexual policing.

As they allied with the police in the 1990s, dominance feminists fell victim to the allure of police “professionalism.” Deeply invested in their own professional advancement, they amended the law to shore up their own authority at the expense of poor women of color. Dominance feminists never seemed to question the ways police “professionalism” shielded police departments from citizen review and, as Fischer shows, only added to police authority. Most significantly, police departments adopted the protectionist rhetoric taken from dominance feminists and bandied it about to justify juking their arrest numbers by profiling, harassing, and arresting Black women, all while growing their own police budgets and pensions.

“Complicity” may be too soft of a word to describe the relationship that developed between dominance feminists and the criminal justice system. Of course, as Fischer suggests, if dominance feminists had only centered Black women in their analyses, and more provocatively, actually spoken to Black women who lived in police-occupied neighborhoods where they experienced daily police harassment, then their legal strategies might have been very different. Dominance feminists narrowly focused on the putative harm of commercial sex itself, rather than the compounded harms of economic precarity, the weakening of welfare state provisioning, and residential segregation that nudged women into the sex trades. Police harassment further compounded these harms. Dominance feminists opportunistically sought to ally themselves with state power as a way to ensure their perspective became policy and shaped policing. By wrapping themselves in Blue, these reformers abandoned Black women.

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Jessica R. Pliley

Jessica R. Pliley is a Professor of Women’s and Gender History and the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas State University. She holds a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University. She is the author of Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Harvard, 2014) and the co-editor of Fighting Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: History and Contemporary Policy (Cambridge, 2021) and Global Anti-Vice Activism, 1890-1950: Fighting Drinks, Drugs, and ‘Immorality’ (Cambridge, 2016). Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and the Journal of the History of Sexuality and several anthologies. Her current research explores the long history of anti-trafficking movement from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century.