Racist Policing Has Roots in Controlling Sex WorkHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Police, womens history, sex work
Sarah A. Seo is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of Policing the Open Road.
Misdemeanors—minor offenses typically punishable by no more than a year in prison—account for more than 80 percent of criminal cases in the United States. In three large municipalities, just 4 percent of a typical police officer's shift is spent on violent crimes, while the majority of their time is devoted to duties like responding to traffic incidents or other disturbances, according to a 2020 New York Times analysis. So why are the police often portrayed, and imagined, as crime fighters?
This mismatch has done more than bolster the police’s public image; it has also served as a rationale for policy choices. Police are equipped with military-grade weapons acquired through federal programs. They are inappropriately trained to be warriors when they should be learning how to act as social workers or street-safety monitors. Unsurprisingly, officers adopt a battle-ready mindset when responding to domestic disturbances or conducting routine traffic stops, too often with devastating consequences.
The historian Anne Gray Fischer offers a surprising explanation for the disconnect between the myth and reality of policing in her book, The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power From Segregation to Gentrification. She argues that the “legal control of people’s bodies and their presumed sexual activities,” especially when it came to Black women, supported the notion that aggressively pursuing public-disorder offenses, such as disturbing the peace or urinating in public, would prevent more serious crimes. This is essentially the theory behind what is known today as “broken windows” policing, a key law-enforcement strategy. Fischer argues that it was the sexual policing of Black women that laid the legal groundwork for “mass misdemeanor policing” and legitimized the police’s broad powers to exercise discretion.
The history that Fischer traces in her book is revelatory for several reasons. Most accounts of crime and punishment focus on men, particularly Black men, not women. Sex work itself wasn’t widely criminalized until the early 20th century, when moral crusaders, alarmed by unfounded fears that white women were being forced into prostitution, banded together to abolish what they called “white slavery.” As the term suggests, officials at the time were not concerned with the degradation of Black women, who were arrested for prostitution at far lower rates than their white counterparts. Moreover, many police leaders maintained that vice wasn’t a real crime, and didn’t prioritize morals enforcement. The Streets Belong to Us shows how dramatically attitudes toward vice and crime changed over the course of the past century.
According to Fischer, two trends coincided in the mid-20th century that turned law enforcement’s attention to Black women’s sexuality. First, white people in cities throughout the country decamped to the suburbs, so by 1965, many urban areas had large Black populations. Second, sexual mores loosened up, requiring the revision of Progressive-era laws that had criminalized nonmarital sex, “with or without hire.” As a result, a new distinction emerged between legal and illegal sexual conduct based on race. For middle-class white women, sex outside of marriage tended to be understood as a private activity and decriminalized (albeit considered a psychological disorder), whereas for Black women, who were associated with the “ghetto” or “slum,” it remained criminalized and came to be seen as an example of public disorder.
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