The Social Evil Ordinance

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Of course decriminalization, too, came under attack. An 1877 St. Louis grand jury attributed an alleged increase in crime to the inability of police “to suppress the crimes which inevitably flow from brothels.” Meanwhile, madams began setting up houses in respectable neighborhoods. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch estimated that the spread of the vice district in the late 1870’s cost the city $25,000,000 in property depreciation, but the police insisted that as long as the state law placed special restraints on them, they could do little. There was talk of re-enacting the social evil ordinance, but when the question was put to voters in 1879, licensing was soundly defeated.

That same year the Missouri legislature very quietly repealed all provisions specifically enacted to protect St. Louis brothels from raids and police extortion. This action, coupled with the enactment by the St. Louis city council of an ordinance defining brothel-keeping as a misdemeanor, allowed the police to assert their authority. After ten years’ experimentation, St. Louis joined other American cities in prohibiting houses of prostitution and putting the enforcement of that prohibition in police hands.

The situation remains largely unchanged to this day. Prostitution has of course changed dramatically in some ways: brothels are surely less conspicuous and probably less significant institutions than they were a hundred years ago. Venereal disease remains a terrible problem but only 10 to 13 per cent of the cases in this country can be traced to prostitutes, and as a result there is little incentive to establish the cumbersome licensing system. There is in fact much talk about decriminalizing prostitution just as St. Louis did somewhat inadvertently a century ago, but there is little action. The truth of the matter is that there remains a strong demand for the arrest of prostitutes. Merchants and families argue that prostitutes, unlike private fornicators, must advertise, and their behavior in doing so is detrimental to business and community life. As a result, the women are arrested over and over, fined, detained, and eventually released. They invariably find their way back to the streets. That was “revolving door” justice in 1879 and so it remains today.

But this system, giving police some control of the vice through harassment while providing some protection to the prostitute and general public through due process, may actually be the least bad system we can hope for.