The Traffic in Women
Our reformers have suddenly made a great discovery: the white slave traffic. The papers are full of these “unheard of conditions” in our midst, and the lawmakers are already planning a new set of laws to check the horror.
How is it that an institution, known almost to every child, should have been discovered so suddenly? How is it that this evil, known to all sociologists, should now be made such an important issue?
It is significant that whenever the public mind is to diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency, gambling, saloons, etc. And what is the result of such crusades? Gambling is increasing, saloons are doing a lively business through back entrances, prostitution is at its height, and the system of pimps and cadets is but aggravated.
To assume that the recent investigation of the white slave traffic by George Kibbe Turner and others (and by the way, a very superficial investigation), has discovered anything new is, to say the least, very foolish. Prostitution was, and is a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has so far remained to our industrial system, of to economic prostitution.
Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colors will baby people become interested, — for a while at least. The people are a very fickle baby that must have new toys every day. The “righteous” cry against the white slave traffic is such a toy. It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs — parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, etc.
What really is the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course: the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?”
Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.
However, there is one commendable exception among the young writers: Reginald Wright Kauffman, whose work The House of Bondage is the first earnest attempt to treat the social evil — not from a sentimental Philistine viewpoint. A journalist of wide experience, Mr. Kauffman proves that our industrial system leaves most women no alternative except prostitution. The women portrayed in The House of Bondage belong to the working class. Had the author portrayed the life of women in other spheres, he would have been confronted with the same state of affairs.
Nowhere is woman treated according to the merit of her work, but rather as a sex. It is therefore almost inevitable that she should pay for her right to exist, to keep a position in whatever line, with sex favors. Thus it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.
Just at present our good people are shocked by the disclosures that in New York City alone one out of every ten women works in a factory, that the average wage received by women is six dollars per week for forty-eight to sixty hours of work, and that the majority of female wage workers face many months of idleness which leaves the average wage about $280 a year. In view of these economic horrors, is it to be wondered at that prostitution and the white slave trade have become such dominant factors?
Lest the preceding figures be considered an exaggeration, it is well to examine what some authorities on prostitution have to say:
“A prolific cause of female depravity can be found in the several tables, showing the description of the employment pursued, and the wages received, by the women previous to their fall, and it will be a question for the political economist to decide how far mere business consideration should be an apology — on the part of employers for a reduction in their rates of remuneration, and whether the savings of a small percentage on wages is not more than counterbalanced by the enormous amount of taxation enforced on the public at large to defray the expenses incurred on account of a system of vice, which is the direct result, in many cases, of insufficient compensation of honest labor.”
Our present-day reformers would do well to look into Dr. Sanger’s book. There they will find that out of 2,000 cases under his observation, but few came from the middle classes, from well-ordered conditions, or pleasant homes. By far the largest majority were working girls and working women; some driven into prostitution through sheer want, others because of a cruel, wretched life at home, others again because of thwarted and crippled physical natures (of which I shall speak later on). Also it will do the maintainers of purity and morality good to learn that out of two thousand cases, 490 were married women, women who lived with their husbands. Evidently there was not much of a guaranty for their “safety and purity” in the sanctity of marriage.
Dr. Alfred Blaschko, in Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century, is even more emphatic in characterizing economic conditions as one of the most vital factors of prostitution. “Although prostitution has existed in all ages, it was left to the nineteenth century to develop it into a gigantic social institution. The development of industry with vast masses of people in the competitive market, the growth and congestion of large cities, the insecurity and uncertainty of employment, has given prostitution an impetus never dreamed of at any period in human history.”
And again Havelock Ellis, while not so absolute in dealing with the economic cause, is nevertheless compelled to admit that it is indirectly and directly the main cause. Thus he finds that a large percentage of prostitutes is recruited from the servant class, although the latter have less care and greater security. On the other hand, Mr. Ellis does not deny that the daily routine, the drudgery, the monotony of the servant girl’s lot, and especially the fact that she may never partake of the companionship and joy of a home, is no mean factor in forcing her to seek recreation and forgetfulness in the gaiety and glimmer of prostitution. In other words, the servant girl, being treated as a drudge, never having the right to herself, and worn out by the caprices of her mistress, can find an outlet, like the factory or shopgirl, only in prostitution.
The most amusing side of the question now before the public is the indignation of our “good, respectable people,” especially the various Christian gentlemen, who are always to be found in the front ranks of every crusade. Is it that they are absolutely ignorant of the history of religion, and especially of the Christian religion? Or is it that they hope to blind the present generation to the part played in the past by the Church in relation to prostitution? Whatever their reason, they should be the last to cry out against the unfortunate victims of today, since it is known to every intelligent student that prostitution is of religious origin, maintained and fostered for many centuries, not as a shame, but as a virtue, hailed as such by the Gods themselves.
“It would seem that the origin of prostitution is to be found primarily in a religious custom, religion, the great conserver of social tradition, preserving in a transformed shape a primitive freedom that was passing out of the general social life. The typical example is that recorded by Herodotus, in the fifth century before Christ, at the Temple of Mylitta, the Babylonian Venus, where every woman, once in her life, had to come and give herself to the first stranger, who threw a coin in her lap, to worship the goddess. Very similar customs existed in other parts of western Asia, in North Africa, in Cyprus, and other islands of the eastern Mediterranean, and also in Greece, where the temple of Aphrodite on the fort at Corinth possessed over a thousand hierodules, dedicated to the service of the goddess.
“The theory that religious prostitution developed, as a general rule, out of the belief that the generative activity of human beings possessed a mysterious and sacred influence in promoting the fertility of Nature, is maintained by all authoritative writers on the subject. Gradually, however, and when prostitution became an organized institution under priestly influence, religious prostitution developed utilitarian sides, thus helping to increase public revenue.
“The rise of Christianity to political power produced little change in policy. The leading fathers of the Church tolerated prostitution. Brothels under municipal protection are found in the thirteenth century. They constituted a sort of public service, the directors of them being considered almost as public servants.”
To this must be added the following from Dr. Sanger’s work:
“Pope Clement II. issued a bull that prostitutes would be tolerated if they pay a certain amount of their earnings to the Church.
“Pope Sixtus IV. was more practical; from one single brothel, which he himself had built, he received an income of 20,000 ducats.”
In modern times the Church is a little more careful in that direction. At least she does not openly demand tribute from prostitutes. She finds it much more profitable to go in for real estate, like Trinity Church, for instance, to rent out death traps at an exorbitant price to those who live off and by prostitution.
Much as I should like to, my space will not admit speaking of prostitution in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and during the Middle Ages. The conditions in the latter period are particularly interesting, inasmuch as prostitution was organized into guilds, presided over by a Brothel Queen. These guilds employed strikes as a medium of improving their condition and keeping a standard price. Certainly that is more practical a method than the one used by the modern wage slave in society.
Never, however, did prostitution reach its present depraved and criminal position, because at no time in past ages was prostitution persecuted and hounded as it is to-day, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, where Phariseeism is at its height, where each one is busy hiding the skeletons in his own home by pointing to the sore of the other fellow.
But I must not lose sight of the present issue, the white slave traffic. I have already spoken of the economic cause, but I think a cause much deeper and by far of greater importance is the complete ignorance on sex matters. It is a conceded fact that woman has been reared as a sex commodity, and yet she is kept in absolute ignorance of the meaning and importance of sex. Everything dealing with that subject is suppressed, and people who attempt to bring light into this terrible darkness are persecuted and thrown into prison. Yet it is nevertheless true that so long as a girl is not to know how to take care of herself, not to know the function of the most important part of her life, we need not be surprised if she becomes an easy prey to prostitution or any other form of a relationship which degrades her to the position of an object for mere sex gratification.
It is due to this ignorance that the entire life and nature of the girl is thwarted and crippled. We have long ago taken it as a self-evident fact that the boy may follow the call of the wild, that is to say that the boy may, as soon as his sex nature asserts itself, satisfy that nature, but our moralists are scandalized at the very thought that the nature of a girl should assert itself. To the moralist prostitution does not consist so much in the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it to many.
Having been looked upon as a mere sex-commodity, the woman’s honor, decency, morality, and usefulness have become a part of her sex life. Thus society considers the sex experiences of a man as attributes of his general development, while similar experiences in the life of a woman are looked upon as a terrible calamity, a loss of honor and of all that is good and noble in a human being. This double standard of morality has played no little part in the creation and perpetuation of prostitution. It involves the keeping of the young in absolute ignorance on sex matters, which alleged “innocence”, together with an overwrought and stifled sex nature, helps to bring about a state of affairs that our Puritans are so anxious to avoid or prevent. This state of affairs finds a masterly portrayal in Zola’s “Fecundity.”
Girls, mere children, work in crowded, overheated rooms ten to twelve hours daily at a machine, which tends to keep them in a constant-over-excited sex state. Many of these girls haven’t any home or comforts of any kind; therefore the street or some place of cheap amusement is the only means of forgetting their daily routine. This naturally brings them into close proximity with the other sex. It is hard to say which of the two factors brings the girl’s over-sexed condition to a climax, but it certainly is the most natural thing that a climax should follow. That is the first step toward prostitution. Nor is the girl to be held responsible for it. On the contrary, it is altogether the fault of society, the fault of our lack of understanding, of lack of appreciation of life in the making; especially is it the criminal fault of our moralists, who condemn a girl for all eternity because she has gone from “the path of virtue”; that is, because her first sex experience has taken place without the sanction of the Church or State.
The girl finds herself a complete outcast, with the doors of home and society closed in her face. Her entire training and tradition are such that the girl herself feels depraved and fallen, and therefore has no ground to stand upon, or any hold that will lift her up, instead of throwing her down. Thus society creates the victims that it afterwards vainly attempts to get rid of.
Much stress is laid on white slaves being imported into America. How would America ever retain her virtue if she didn’t have Europe to help her out? I will not deny that this may be the case in some instances, any more than I will deny that there are emissaries of Germany and other countries luring economic slaves into America, but I absolutely deny that prostitution is recruited, to any appreciable extent, from Europe. It may be true that the majority of prostitutes of New York City are foreigners, but that is only because the majority of the population is foreign. The moment we go to any other American city, to Chicago or the middle West, we shall find that the number of foreign prostitutes is by far a minority.
Equally exaggerated is the belief that the majority of street girls in this city were engaged in this business before they came to America. Most of the girls speak excellent English, they are Americanized in habits and appearance, — a thing absolutely impossible unless they have lived in this country many years. That is, they were driven into prostitution by American conditions, by the thoroughly American custom for excessive display of finery and clothes which, of course, necessitates money, money that can not be earned in shops or factories. The equanimity of the moralists is not disturbed by the respectable woman gratifying her clothesophobia by marrying for money; why are they so outraged if the poor girl sells herself for the same reason? The only difference lies in the amount received, and of course in the seal society either gives or withholds.
I am sure that no one will accuse me of nationalist tendencies. I am glad to say that I have developed out of them, as out of many other prejudices. If, therefore, I resent the statement that Jewish prostitutes are imported, it is not because of any Judaistic sympathies, but because of the fact inherent in the lives of these people. No one but the most superficial will claim that the Jewish girls migrate to strange lands unless they have some tie or relation that brings them there. The Jewish girl is not adventurous. Until recent years, she had never left home, not even so far as the next village or town, unless it were to visit some relative. Is it then credible that Jewish girls would leave their parents or families, travel thousands of miles to strange lands, through the influence and promises of strange forces? Go to any of the large incoming steamers and see for yourself if these girls do not come either with their parents, brothers, aunts, or other kinsfolk. There may be exceptions, of course, but to state that a large number of Jewish girls are imported for prostitution, or any other purpose, is simply not to know the Jewish psychology.
On the other hand, it speaks of very little business ability on the part of importers of the white slaves, if they assume that the girls from the peasant regions of Poland, Bohemia, or Hungary in their native peasant crude state and attire would make a profitable business investment. These poor ignorant girls, in their undeveloped state, with their shawls about their heads, look much too unattractive to even the most stupid man. It therefore follows that before they can be made fit for business, they, too, must be Americanized, which would require not merely a week or a month, but considerable time. They must at least learn the rudiments of English, but more than anything else they must learn American shrewdness, in order to protect themselves against the many uniformed cadets, who prey on them and fleece them at every step.
To ascribe the increase of prostitution to alleged importation, to the growth of the cadet system, or similar causes, is highly superficial. I have already referred to the former. As to the cadet system, abhorrent as it is, we must not ignore the fact that it is essentially a phase of modern prostitution, — a phase accentuated by suppression and graft, resulting from sporadic crusades against the social evil.
The origin of the cadets, as an institution, can be traced to the Lexow investigation in New York City, in 1894. Thanks to that moral spasm, keepers of brothels, as well as unfortunate victims of the street, were turned over to the tender mercies of the police. The inevitable consequence of exorbitant bribes and the penitentiary followed.
While comparatively protected in the brothels, where they represented a certain value, the unfortunate girls now found themselves on the street, absolutely at the mercy of the graft-greedy police. Desperate, needing protection and longing for affection, these girls naturally proved an easy prey for cadets, themselves the result of the spirit of our commercial age. Thus the cadet system was the direct outgrowth of police persecution, graft, and attempted suppression of prostitution. It were sheer folly to confute this modern phase of the social evil with the causes of the latter.
The serious student of this problem realizes that legislative enactments, stringent laws, and similar methods can not possibly eradicate, nor even ameliorate this evil. Those best familiar with the subject agree on this vital point. Dr. Alfred Blaschko, an eminent authority, convincingly proves in his “Prostitution im 19. Jahrhundert” that governmental suppression and moral crusades accomplish nothing save driving the evil into secret channels, multiplying its dangers to the community. In this claim he is supported by such thorough students as Havelock Ellis, Dr. H. Ploss, and others.
Mere suppression and barbaric enactment can serve but to embitter and further degrade the unfortunate victims of ignorance and stupidity. The latter has reached its highest expression in the proposed law to make humane treatment of prostitutes a crime, punishing anyone sheltering a prostitute with five years imprisonment and $10,000 fine. Such an attitude merely exposes the terrible lack of understanding of the true causes of prostitution, as a social factor, as well as manifesting the Puritanic spirit of the Scarlet Letter days.
An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Willful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil, as an actual social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy and insure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values — especially the moral ones — coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.