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  • Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI by Jessica R. Pliley
  • E. Ashley Sorrell (bio)
Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI. By Jessica R. Pliley (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 1, 293. $29.95 cloth)

Scholars who study anxieties surrounding women’s sexuality in the early twentieth century often focus on the complicated relationship between female reformers and their subjects of reform. Jessica [End Page 768] Pliley shifts the focus from how reform organizations gained power in society through the policing of sexuality to the growth of federal government agencies, notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In doing so, she adds to a growing scholarship that analyzes the central role gender played in the building of the bureaucratic and punitive state.

Pliley centers her analysis on the creation and enforcement of the Mann Act, which Congress passed in 1910 out of a growing panic over white slave trafficking. She argues that the act expanded the ability of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) to police morality in both the public and private sphere. Indeed, the “any other immoral purposes” clause of the Mann Act created an opening for the Bureau to act. It moved from policing forced prostitution to creating surveillance structures that brought noncommercial female sexuality under the gaze of the state. The Bureau’s approach to enforcing the Mann Act highlighted tensions between protecting and policing women, while defending traditional gender roles originating from the law of coverture.

Case studies from the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) form the core of Pliley’s source material. Most of the case studies used in Policing Sexuality are centered on anxieties related to white female sexuality and the threats to white womanhood. Pliley effectively explains how turn-of-the-century rhetoric positioning white slavery as a foreign threat centered on anxieties related to immigration became a domestic concern encompassing white American female sexuality by the early twentieth century. This reconceptualization of who constituted the victim in white slavery narratives shifted Mann Act enforcement from the Bureau of Immigration to the BOI. Despite historically situated reinterpretations of female victimhood, one constant remained the same—African American women were outside the pale of claiming victim status.

Policing Sexuality adds to this historiography in significant ways, particularly in Pliley’s analysis of how the enforcement of the Mann Act was integral to the development of the surveillance state. She [End Page 769] effectively presents this argument by extending her analysis through the Progressive era and into the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of World War I, reformers and government officials made few, if any, distinctions between promiscuity and prostitution. This new understanding of the threats posed by female sexuality, coupled with a broad interpretation of the “any other immoral purposes” clause of the Mann Act, created a space in which “marriage emerged as the primary institution that the Bureau policed” by the 1920s (p. 131). Pliley uses examples of the Bureau’s involvement in domestic relationships to demonstrate how the agency drew on ideas of proper gender roles and behavior to restore order in the household.

Husbands and wives often sought the Bureau’s help in returning their significant others who were suspected of extramarital affairs. Pliley argues, “In policing patriarchy and respectable domesticity, convictions were not necessarily the Bureau’s goal, bringing order to disorderly homes was” (p. 132). Cases in the interwar period demonstrate how many sought the help of the Bureau to punish or return recalcitrant husbands, wives, and daughters. In these examples, Policing Sexuality adds a significant new understanding of how many families used measures of state surveillance to their own advantage.

Policing Sexuality makes a significant contribution to the study of gender and the creation of federal policing agencies. Pliley utilizes case studies from the Bureau to effectively show how the targets of enforcement changed over time, but the conservative gender ideals of the Bureau remained stagnant. However, in discussing the emergence of the surveillance state, Pliley limits her analysis by only researching the role of the Bureau of Investigation. To understand the scope and reach...


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pp. 768-771
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