Karen Abbott wrote about prostitution in her book Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, which was published by Random House in 2008. This nonfiction book tells the story of Minna and Ada Everleigh, who took Chicago by storm with their upscale Everleigh Club, a stark contrast to the seedier prostitution practices in the city. Minna and Ada are credited with operating an establishment that offered the most extreme services connected with prostitution, also did so with regard for the health and welfare of its female employees. The Everleigh sisters were shrewd business women with Ada serving as head of human resources and accounting and Minna as the operations manager, advertising and PR director.
Sin in the Second City dispels some of the myths and confirms many suspicions one might have about prostitution and its reform at the turn of the Century. The Everleigh Club was in operation from 1900 to 1911, just over one hundred years ago. The controversy over prostitution continues today. We still hear of famous, wealthy and politically powerful people who avail themselves of the services of prostitutes, and we still find reformers and policymakers who, in an attempt to crack down on prostitution, actually put people in danger of further harm with their well-meaning campaigns. For example, there has been a crackdown wherein prostitutes who carry condoms have those condoms used as evidence against them, as proof of their commission of the crime of prostitution. Additionally, while public health employees distribute condoms to sex workers, police confiscate them from the women in an effort to deter them from engaging in prostitution, at least for that night. (See editorial in the New York Times by Megan McLemore.) Even as HIV positive status continues to increase for prostitutes worldwide, police use confiscation of condoms and threat of prosecution for possessing condoms.
Unsurprisingly, interviews with prostitutes confirm that confiscation of condoms does not stop sex work, but rather makes it riskier for all involved. In an effort to support the use of condoms by sex workers and their clientele, New York has pending legislation that would disallow condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.
The same battle continues today. A hundred years ago, the reformers attacked the widely known Everleigh Club and eventually succeeded in putting it out of business. As we know, prostitution in Chicago and elsewhere did not end when the Everleigh Club closed. What ended was any sort of protection for the women engaged in sex work, such as those found as courtesans in such a club where a physician was employed to help cure and readily treat disease. Even as reformers wanted to stop human trafficking that was associated with prostitution, merely closing down the Everleigh Club did not do anything toward reducing sex work or human trafficking. The same holds true today, when in an attempt to stop prostitution, our police departments (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco are mentioned in the New York Times op-ed piece) merely increase the likelihood of HIV transmission, along with other sexually transmitted illnesses. Just as the reformers in Chicago likely realized, we need to see that making sex work less safe does nothing to curb its existence.
Prostitution is a hot button issue in feminist circles. Some women claim it is empowering as they are essentially business owners who shape their work environment and support children who might otherwise starve. Some claim sex work as the ultimate evil, something that must be eradicated as its nature is degrading to anyone participating in it. (See Allyson Whipple’s Her Circle post here to read more about the controversy.) Regardless of where one stands on the issue itself, safety and health amongst prostitutes and their clients should remain a priority.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.