Mann Act criminalized men's sexual activity

In 1910, the Mann Act criminalized persuading or helping any woman to cross state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Conviction under a Mann Act charge carried punishment of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to $5000.[1]  U.S. courts interpreted the Mann Act’s description of purpose to encompass a man seeking to have sex with any woman other than his wife.  Intending to have sex with a woman, but not actually having sex with her, was sufficient for conviction under the Mann Act.  Whether the woman voluntarily engaged in sex was irrelevant under the Mann Act.[2]  A Mann Act violation was typically charged against only the man, and not the woman, in a consensual, non-commercial sexual affair.  The Mann Act’s name literally indicates its concern.  The Mann Act primarily criminalized men for sexual activity with women.

The Mann Act was biased against men from prosecution to imprisonment.  In the Pacific Northwest from 1910 to 1930, an estimated 532 men, and only 15 women, were prosecuted under the Mann Act for interstate non-commercial heterosexual affairs.  Nation-wide from 1927 to 1937, an estimated 2988 men were imprisoned for Mann Act convictions, while only 41 women were. Men imprisoned under the Mann Act on average received longer sentences of imprisonment than women did.  In the Pacific Northwest from 1910 to 1930, men sentenced to imprisonment under the Mann Act averaged a sentence of 17.5 months, while women averaged 15 months.[3]  Because women were charged in more aggravated cases than men, that difference in average sentence length underestimates the gender bias in sentencing.  For  example, a man and a woman having an affair in 1931 traveled together from their homes in Pennsylvania to West Virginia, where they stayed in the same hotel room.  Convicted under the Mann Act, the man received a 30-month prison sentence, and the woman, an 18-month sentence.[4]  In another case, an unmarried couple traveled together from Pennsylvania to Alabama in 1934.  Convicted under the Mann Act, the man received six months imprisonment, and the woman received probation.[5]

Legal scholars have downplayed the effect of the Mann Act on men and highlighted its effect on women.  In 2008, a law professor’s short note “Sex, Corruption, Federalism, & the Mann Act” exclaimed:

The defendant {in Mann Act cases} was frequently the woman who, when she drove the car, was indicted as a co-conspirator in transporting herself across state lines for immoral purposes!

That claim is highly misleading.  Probably less than 4% of Mann Act defendants were women charged as co-conspirators for transporting themselves.[6]  That claim is also not relevant to the substantive point of the author’s note, although it may have served to enhance the author’s standing among his peers.  Written by a man, the leading scholarly monograph on the Mann Act declares:

One of the ironies of the Mann Act’s evolution is that women, as the protected class of the statute, in fact became its chief victims. … The statute distinctly inhibited women from taking trips with their male friends.  It not only deprived women of opportunities for vacation and travel but effectively prevented women from using the vehicle of interstate travel as a method of expressing their own sexuality.  Women were deprived of a fundamental human activity which caused no harm to anybody.  They were also subjected to a double standard, since males could travel in interstate commerce to meet women, but no couple without fear of prosecution could allow the woman to similarly travel to meet the male.[7]

The pairing of the nouns “woman” and “male” emphasizes that men comprise a relatively bestial gender.  These sophistical arguments about the greater victimization of women, placed against the punishing reality of the Mann Act, indicate men’s keen interest in publicly showing concern for women’s welfare.[8]

imprisoned white slave girl, impetus for passage of the Mann Act

Sensational public concern about “white-slave trade” in women motivated the passage of the Mann Act in 1910.  Women from rural areas and from foreign countries — France, Germany, Italy, China, Japan, and others — were allegedly duped and forced into involuntary servitude as prostitutes.  Once captured, they were allegedly bought and sold like black slaves had been.  Leaders in the fight against the white-slave trade greatly exploited sexual and racial biases.  For example, a book published in 1910 was entitled Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls or War on the White Slave Trade. The title page sensationally advertised:

Showing the workings of the blackest slavery that has ever stained the human race.

The book included essays on white slavery from persons in the following positions:

  • United States District Attorney, Chicago
  • Assistant United States District Attorney, Chicago
  • Assistant State’s Attorney, Cook County, Ill.
  • Secretary of the National Vigilance Association, London, England
  • Member of the National Vigilance Committee, New York
  • President of the National Florence Crittenton Mission
  • Superintendent of the Illinois Training School for Girls
  • Missionary of the Moody Church, Chicago
  • Deaconess of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Chicago
  • Principal, Red Water Institute, Red Water, Texas
  • Professor at Rush Medical College, Chicago
  • Professor at Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago
  • Pastor of the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church, Chicago [9]

In that book, the United States District Attorney in Chicago warned rural girls coming to Chicago:

One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement.  This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners.  Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards “white slavery” in places of this character. [10]

Interest in theater, the Assistant State’s Attorney explained, was also a common path into white slavery:

The most worked method of securing the confidence by appealing to the ambition of the girl is by the stage or theatrical route. It is because so many girls are “stage struck” now-a-days that this method has been worked most successfully. Perhaps of all the cases that have been tried in nearly the last three years in Chicago, the girls who have been procured by inducements to go upon the stage outnumber all others. The slave trader represents himself as the agent of some theatrical manager, or perhaps as the manager himself. Going to a factory town, for example, he makes it his business to meet some girl who is working there who he has learned is “stage struck.” After the formalities of an introduction, which he secures in one way or another, he leads up to the subject by telling that he is a theatrical man and is looking for new recruits.

The girl is at once interested. She is naturally ambitious. She wants to better her condition in life. She doesn’t suspect that a fiend with the heart of a devil is masquerading before her as the agent of some theatrical manager. He explains to her that if she will accompany him she can make from $15 to $20 a week at the very start and in a year she will be playing a part, and a year or so later she will possibly be leading lady. The picture is an alluring one to this young girl, for she is now making only perhaps $4, $5 or $6 a week, and the thought of securing such a large salary at the very start almost sweeps her off her feet. She is entranced by the beautiful picture that has been painted and she goes, perhaps to a stage from which she will never return. [11]

The old white men who made up the political and intellectual elite vigorously expressed concern about young white girls being turned into sex slaves.  A New York Times editorial in 1909 declared:

In his belief that the white slave trade is a great as well as monstrous evil, President Taft has the support of all the commissions and individuals who have given the matter examination at once honest and careful. The denials come partly from people who are loath to admit that such things can be going on in modern communities pretending to be civilized, and partly from those who profit directly or indirectly, by the abhorrent traffic. [12]

That position recognized no room for honest, reasoned, public-spirited judgment that “white-slave trade” was rare, not systematic.  Some persons nonetheless evidently persisted in denial.  In early 1910, the New York Times headlined its front page, “White Slave Traffic Shown to Be Real.”  The article reported on a press conference in which the District Attorney declared that a “light mulatto” woman and a “colored man,” as well as a man with a typically Jewish last name, had been arrested in conjunction with the sale of two white girls (“white slaves”), ages 17 and 18.[13]  These white slaves subsequently testified that they were ages 25 and 23, and had voluntarily accepted money to travel to Seattle to work there as prostitutes.[14]  That was probably the sort of transaction typically associated with the movement of prostitutes.[15]

White slavery was a successful fictional and non-fictional, multi-media theme.  John Marvel, Assistant (1909), The House of Bondage (1910), The Rose Door (1913) and other novels exploited the theme, as did the 1913 Broadway plays, The Lure and The  Flight.  A formally non-fictional white-slavery genre was “books filled with lurid case studies and grossly distorted real events combined with chapters contributed by public officials and social workers.” Such works included Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls or War on the White Slave Trade (1910),  The great war on white slavery, or fighting for the protection of our girls (1911), Chicago’s Black Traffic in White Girls (1912), and Canada’s War on the White Slave Trade (1912).  White slavery also made fictional and documentary movies such as The Fatal Hour (1908), Traffic in Souls (1913), The Inside of the White Slave Trade (1913), House of Bondage (1914) (a film version of the book by that name), The Little Girl Next Door (1916), and Is Any Girl Safe? (1916).[16] The New York Times, perhaps concerned to strengthen its reputation for non-fictional stories, changed its position and declared that an organized white slave industry didn’t exist:

By July 1914 it {the New York Times} declared “sensational magazine articles had created a belief in the existence of a great interstate ‘white slave’ trust.  No such trust exists, nor is there any organized white slave industry anywhere.”  By 1916 it referred to the “myth of an international and interstate ‘syndicate’ trafficking in women” as merely “a figment of imaginative fly-gobblers.” [17]

That change in position hardly mattered.  White slavery had too much support in real sexual and racial biases to be regarded as largely fictional.

The racial bias supporting concern about white slavery is more widely recognized today than the sexual bias.  The Mann Act entitled itself the White Slave Traffic Act.[18]  Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910.  In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended women’s right to vote uniformly across all jurisdictions and all elections.  The Mann Act nearly always in application assigned men sole criminal responsibility for a consensual interstate heterosexual affair.[19]  When women gained equal voting rights, they did not also gain equal criminal responsibility.  The Mann Act continued essentially unchanged until 1986.  Amendments in 1986 removed the sexist language and limited the application of the Act to activities that were criminal under state law.[20]  Those amendments did not signal the end to the sexual bias underlying the White Slave Traffic Act, also fittingly known as the Mann Act.  Men and women are much more likely to express publicly concern about women’s welfare than about men’s welfare.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Data: Statistics on Mann Act cases (Excel version)


[1] Here’s the text of the Mann Act.

[2] Caminetti v. United States, 242 US 470 (1917), clarified that the Mann Act applied to non-commercial consensual sex.  Even prior to that decision, Mann Act convictions included buying a railroad ticket for a seventeen-year old girl/woman to travel from Atlanta to Florida to work in a theater associated with debauchery.  See Athanasaw v. United States, 227 US 326 (1913).  The Mann Act, Section 3, encompassed:

any person who shall knowingly persuade, induce, entice, or coerce, or cause to be persuaded, induced, enticed, or coerced, or aid or assist in persuading, inducing, enticing or coercing any woman or girl … with the intent and purpose on the part of such person that such woman or girl shall engage in the practice of prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral practice, whether with or without her consent

The Mann Act thus criminalized sexual intent, as well as sexual practice.

[3] For statistical details and sources, see Mann Act statistics workbook.

[4] Beckman (1984) p. 1127 (case of Elizabeth and Russell).

[5] Langum (1994) pp. 1-2 (case of Eleanor Becker and Maurice Shannon).

[6] United States v. Holte, 236 US 140 (1915), affirmed that Clara Holte, a 41-year-old married woman, could be charged as a co-conspirator in violation of the Mann Act for traveling with a man across state lines to engage in adultery.  Gebardi v. United States, 287 US 112 (1932), greatly narrowed the applicability of Holte.  After Gebardi, the U.S. Attorney General directed U.S. Attorneys not to bring Mann Act cases against women in noncommercial (non-prostitution) circumstances.  Beckman (1984) p. 1127.  An estimated 8% of Mann Act cases, 1927-1937, had female defendants. In the Pacific Northwest from 1910 to 1930, 2.7% of Mann Act cases had female defendants.  Women were charged as co-conspirators only in non-commercial cases.  Non-commercial cases with female defendants probably amounted to no more than half of total cases with female defendants.  For data, see Mann Act statistics workbook.

[7] Langum (1994) pp. 10-11.  Ch. 4., id., is devoted to the issue of blackmailing men with the threat of exposure to a Mann Act prosecution.  Such blackmail was widely regarded as a serious problem.  The conclusion returns to expressing particular concern about women:

In the area of noncommercial sexual expression, and particularly as regards women, the intended beneficiaries of the Act, this majoritarian morality profoundly oppressed those whose harmless conduct did not conform.

Id. p. 259.  The next paragraph, referring to consequences of the Mann Act, makes no specific reference to men or males, but does refer to consequences “such as … repression of female sexuality.”  Id.

[8] The effect does not seem to be sexually symmetric.  Beckman (1984), an article by a woman author, provides detailed data on women imprisoned under the Mann Act.  No such data exist for men.  McCoy, another woman author,  in McCoy (2010), p. 10, declares:

Men imprisoned for interstate affairs while their mistresses faced no consequences may be viewed as victims of the overzealous enforcement of this law.  But their abandoned families—left to fend for themselves while the men served their sentences—may have been the ones who suffered the most.

Not seeing direct harm to men as a compelling social concern and emphasizing the effects of harm to men on their instrumental value to others supports social devaluation of men as intrinsically valued persons.

[9] Bell (1910), title page.

[10] Id. p. 71, from Ch. IV, Edwin W. Sims, United States District Attorney, Chicago, “Menace of the White Slave Trade.”

[11] Id. pp. 165-6, from Ch. XII, Clifford G. Roe, Assistant State’s Attorney of Cook County, Illinois, “The Auctioneer of Souls.”  Roe’s story itself is quite theatrical.  In mid-nineteenth-century America, respected authorities considered theaters to be a leading source of crime.

[12] Editorial, “There is a White Slave Trade,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 1909, p. 10.

[13] “White Slave Traffic Shown to be Real,” New York Times, Apr. 30, 1910.

[14] “Belle Moore Guilty of Selling Girls,” New York Times, May 20, 1910.  The transcript of the Belle Moore case is available online.

[15] Chicago was an epicenter of concern about white slavery.  A study of white-slave prosecutions in Chicago from 1910 to 1913 found that less than 5% of cases involved a woman held against her will.  Langum (1994) p. 35 judges that figure to be “as close to the truth as we can come.” The share of women held against their will in prostitution within the total population of female prostitutes would be much smaller.

[16] Examples from Langum (1994) pp. 33-4.

[17] Id. p. 33.

[18] The name “Mann Act” arose from the name of the Act’s sponsor, Congressman James R. Mann from Chicago.  Sec. 8 of the Act declared:

That this Act shall be known and referred to as the “White-slave traffic Act.”

That latter name is typically standardized to the White Slave Traffic Act.

[19] McCoy (2010) p. 230, ft. 61 declares:

Although it may have been technically possible for a woman to be charged with transporting another woman for an “immoral” interstate sexual affair, it was not conceptually possible for most early-twentieth century Americans. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever suggested the possibility that women could be noncommercial violators for having same-sex affairs across state lines. It simply would have almost never occurred to contemporary observers that women traveling on trains together or sleeping in the same hotel room might be engaged in interstate love affairs, even if some were.

The issue seems to me less lack of knowledge of lesbianism than lack of interest in prosecuting women.

[20] Langum (1994) pp. 248-51.  A 1978 amendment changed only the section of the Mann Act dealing with juvenile victims.  Id. pp. 244-5.


Beckman, Marlene D. 1984.  “The White Slave Traffic Act: The Historical Impact of a Criminal Law Policy on Women.” Georgetown Law Journal, v. 72, pp. 1111-1142.

Bell, Ernest A., ed. 1910. Fighting the traffic in young girls or, War on the white slave trade (Project Gutenburg version).

Langum, David J. 1994. Crossing over the line: legislating morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCoy, Kelli Ann. 2010. Claiming victims: the Mann Act, gender, and class in the American West, 1910-1930s. Ph.D. Thesis, History Department. University of California, San Diego.

One thought on “Mann Act criminalized men's sexual activity”

  1. The 1986 amendment, p;us the decisions preventing criminalizing same sex acts, has actually fixed the act, and prevented it’s application against consensual sex.

    Worry not, people in love. Crossing the border to have sex is legal again. 🙂

    Originally, it could be (and was!) used to prosecute interstate affairs, and young teens running off to have fun, making ANY non marital sex with a female illegal if they crossed a border together. Now all that matters is are the participants consenting and are they above the age of consent where the act takes place, and was there no money exchanged. If so, the Mann act is not violated.

    It may only now be used for it’s originally intended purpose of stopping sex trafficking.

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