During the Progressive Era, America seemed to wake up to the real threat of the “Social Evil.” Prostitutes, who had hitherto been cast as unfortunate and naïve women who allowed themselves to be seduced and ruined, were now seen as dangerous carriers of frightening and incurable disease. The Federal Government reacted by passing the Mann Act in 1910. Within 15 years prostitution had been criminalized in every state.
Criminalization, however, only ever really affected the sellers of sex. The demand side of commercial sex—comprised of men who were given the common, judgment-free, and anonymous-sounding appellation “john”—continued to buy sex with near impunity. Over the course of the twentieth century, police departments perfected methods of finding and arresting prostitutes, including the use of street sweeps and male decoys. Few women who were charged with prostitution challenged these methods. The few who did came to court armed with statistics showing pervasive discriminatory enforcement of prostitution laws against prostitutes and even police testimony admitting the same. However, these women overwhelmingly saw their defenses thrown out. While a small and modestly growing number of enlightened judges have dismissed cases against women charged with prostitution on the grounds of discriminatory enforcement, the problem remains. According to recent FBI statistics, roughly two women are arrested for prostitution for every one man.