Excluding Those in the Sex Industry from Covid-19 Relief is a MistakeRoundup
tags: urban history, womens history, Progressive Era, Vice, sex work, prostitution, COVID-19, red light districts
Leah LaGrone is a PhD candidate in history at Texas Christian University.
Big companies like Ruth Chris, Potbelly and Shake Shack that are receiving large coronavirus-related Small Business Administration loans have caused an uproar. But far less attention has been paid to whom the SBA excluded from relief: people who work in the sex industry.
The SBA decision highlights how perceptions of morality and access to living wages have long been yoked for employees of businesses related to sex. When the government excludes the sex industry from economic help, it is because it considers this work immoral, a judgment that devalues women’s labor and sex work more broadly. Treating the sex industry as illicit reinforces flawed moral judgments and makes workers in this industry, especially women, particularly vulnerable.
In the early 20th century, American communities addressed the sex industry with ambivalence, simultaneously criminalizing women who performed this work, and finding ways to raise revenue from it. While prostitution was technically illegal, in many cases local governments allowed women to provide such services, often sanctioning red light districts that provided money to the city coffers. For example, a 1908 Texas law criminalized and charged women suspected of prostitution as “vagrants.” In that same legislative session, however, state officials allowed city governments to rewrite their charters and create red light districts. Many of the red light districts were moved out of the central business districts to neighborhoods with predominantly African American populations. “The Reservation” and “Frogtown” in Houston and Dallas are examples of this legal paradox.
But legislatures also tried using economic policies to coerce women to conform to specific models of morality. In 1913, the Illinois legislature led a national movement to pay women a living wage in jobs that would keep them out of the sex industry, specifically prostitution. Legislators zeroed in on a small paragraph in a 1911 Chicago Vice Commission Report that connected the low wages women were paid in “legitimate businesses” with forcing women into prostitution to survive. The reformers argued that economic insecurity and not personal immorality was to blame for women taking up prostitution. Many poor women, including some who worked as prostitutes, acknowledged as much while testifying in front of government commissions to ask for living wages.