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The March Against Commercialized Prostitution: 1886-1949

Milestones In The March Against Commercialized Prostitution 1886-1949

An informal chronicle of national and international events contributing to progress in this field of social hygiene.

1886:   Contagious Diseases Act is repealed in England.  This meant the overthrow of state regulation in that country, and did much to influence the United States against licensing prostitution.

1899:   First International Conference for the Suppression of Traffic in Women convenes in England.   At this Conference it first became generally known as a fact that a national and international traffic in women existed.

“Greed of gain was its motive and the helplessness of the victims furnished the ground of exploitation.  It was not a mere question of supply and demand, but one of a stimulated supply and demand…”

1902:   First Official International Conference for Suppression of White-Slave Traffic meets in Paris to draft treaty embodying measures for suppressing international traffic in women.

1904:   International agreement adopted by thirteen nations –Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britan, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland –recognizing the imperative need to combat traffic in women and children.

1906:   Ratification of above treaty by United States Government. Congress appoints the National Immigration Committee. Study of the question of importation of women for immoral purposes, leading to passage later of Mann and Bennet acts.

1910:   Second International Conference for Suppression of White-Slave Traffic adopts convention requiring the nations represented to pass and enforce legislation to punish procuring minors under twenty-one for immoral purposes, even with their consent, and of adults by force or fraud.

1910: United States Congress adopts Mann Act (prohibiting interstate and international traffic in women)  and Bennet Act (penalizing those who import aliens for immoral purposes, and providing for deportation of aliens engaging in the business of prostitution).

Chicago Vice Commission makes exhaustive study of commercialized prostitution and reaches unanimous conclusion:

“Constant and persistent repression of prostitution the immediate method; absolute annihilation the ultimate ideal.”

Thirty other cities established vice commissions and make similar studies, all arriving at practically the same conclusion.

1914:   National Vigilance Association merges with the American Federation for Sex Hygiene to form the American Social Hygiene Association.

Promotion with the Association’s encouragement, of widespread enactment of law against commercialized prostitution, including laws against “white slavery,” injunction and abatement acts, laws for the establishment of reformatories for women, and such statutes as venereal disease reporting laws and laws against advertising of veneral disease remedies.  The laws against traffic in women and girls aimed at prosecution of procurers and promoters of vice; injunction and abatement laws authorized suppression of disorderly houses as public nuisances.  The enactment and enforcement of disorderly houses as public nuisances.  The enactment and enforcement in subsequent year of both types of laws in many states resulted in the closing of numerous houses of prostitution and “red light districts” marking the beginning of the end of these districts as an institution.  Flexner’s Prostitution in Europe and other Bureau of Social Hygiene studies were published.

1917:   (1) Draft Act passed by Congress, including Section 13 which prohibited prostitution in the vicinity of military or naval camps.

(2)  War and Navy Departments’ Commissions on  Training Camp Activities are formed with programs of law enforcement, education and recreation, and cooperation in medical measures  with the activities of the Surgeons General of the Army, Navy and Public Health Service.

(3)  Pronouncement by the American Medical Association that “Sexual continence is compatible with health and is the best prevention of venereal infection.”

(4)  United States Army and Navy adopt policies recognizing sexual continence as a practical factor in venereal disease control.


These combined efforts strengthened the rising tide of determination throughout the country that all toleration and segregation of commercialized prostitution must go, and promoted an uncompromising warfare against prostitution.  During 1917-18, upwards of 200 red light districts were closed, leaving hardly half a dozen by the close of the War.


1918:   Chamberlain-Kahn Act passed by Congress, creating the United States Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board and establishing the Division of Venereal Diseases as part of the United States Public Health Service.

Source: American Social Health Association Records, 1905-2005. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:


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