Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI by Jessica R. Pliley (review)
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POLICING SEXUALITY: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI. By Jessica R. Pliley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2014.

Jessica R. Pliley has written an excellent account of the relationship between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Mann Act, charged with enforcement of cases involving transportation of women across state lines for prostitution or “other immoral purposes.” This book will interest all concerned with changing gender roles, the growth of state institutions, law enforcement, criminality, and surveillance.

Pliley skillfully weaves a number of thematic strands throughout her fascinating account: the institutional growth and development of the BOI/FBI; the centrality of the Mann Act to the Bureau’s development; the changing interpretations of the Mann Act, especially its “any other immoral purpose” clause; the racialized nature of “white slavery;” and the issue of sex worker agency. Her use of research materials, including more than 1,000 case files from 1910 to 1941, is deft and detailed, demonstrating how a good researcher can dig narrow and deep.

Pliley conclusively demonstrates that Mann Act violations lay at the root of pre–World War II Bureau activities. Established in 1908, the BOI became the FBI in 1935. Its original jurisdiction had nothing to do with sexuality. Interestingly, most Mann Act cases resulted from private citizens’ complaints.

The Mann Act’s predecessor, the Page Act (1875), forbade the entry of Chinese women for the “purposes of prostitution;” the Chinese Exclusion Act followed seven years later. Prostitution was perceived as a problem that evil foreigners foisted on innocent Americans, first as the Yellow Peril, and then as the Jewish Peril. Even before the Mann Act, the concept of “white slavery” had racist overtones. Victims were perceived as innocent white women; women of color were literally and figuratively “beyond the Pale.” Nefarious foreigners controlled the trade, seduced innocent white girls, or were prostitutes themselves, doubling as spreaders of venereal disease.

The Mann Act’s catchall “any other immoral purpose” clause allowed the Bureau to go beyond commercial prostitution to cross-border sexual activities without any financial nexus and enabled enforcement of gender norms. The Mann Act enshrined the sexual double standard as it criminalized female sexuality while not treating men—except in the cases of African-American males—in a similar manner.

Throughout, Pliley notes how those involved in the fight against prostitution consistently denied prostitutes agency; they were portrayed as enslaved, seduced, victimized, and as never willingly entering sex work. This contradicted what Bureau inspectors knew. In 1907–1908, Bureau inspector Braun “found few women that he could describe as ‘weak, frail, thoughtless women fallen from the pathway of honor’” (38). Instead, he found “hardened” women working as prostitutes often with local police officer cooperation. Almost thirty years later, a confidante of J. Edgar Hoover came to similar conclusions.

Bureau inspector Braun also discovered that the so-called international traffic in women, “[a]lthough it did exist, was not organized” (50). Organized crime historian Alan Block consistently noted that the concept of an over-arching syndicate of organized criminals is a myth. Certainly organized crime existed and exists, but the degree of organization and cooperation depicted did not represent reality. Movies such as The Godfather were works of fiction—in reality gangsters constantly changed partnerships and engaged in selective cooperation with each other and with law enforcement.

A 1911 innovation was the collation of data on prostitutes and census information for reasons of public health, updated as they moved from locale to locale. Those supporting [End Page 127] the regulation of prostitution by following prostitutes’ movements and by using medical means to prevent venereal disease were accused of promoting vice in much the same way that those distributing clean needles to prevent HIV/AIDS are seen as promoting “immorality.”

In the twenty months that the White Slave Division existed, it collected more than 30,000 names. “This had much to do with technological advancements that benefited the development of the surveillance state: the typewriter, the telegram, and filing innovations like the Dewey decimal system” (92). Could this have been the template for other kinds of information collected and collated by the FBI, whether fingerprints or ballistics? Unfortunately she...