In 1917, the American Plan became law, authorizing doctors and the police to indefinitely imprison women assumed to be sex workers, sexually loose, or infected with STIs. This law was on the books until the 1960s and 70s, but practically no one has heard of it.
Many of us are following the recent attacks on sex workers: FOSTA/SESTA, the enforcement of brutal sentences upon victims of sex trafficking, and so on. But these policies have a history that goes back over a century, a history I believe we all need to know in order to make the most informed resistance to inhumane and sexist laws.
So, buckle up, because this is a wild history that intersects with World Wars I & II, sex education, medical ethics, misogyny, racism, and more. I’m trying to make this as condensed and readable as possible – my college students in the sex ed class last semester were treated to an hour-long rambling lecture as I tried to fit everything in – but please keep in mind that this data spans decades, and only one book has been written about it to my knowledge. To that end, most of my references will be to The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women by Scott Stern.
Let’s start with a recap about STIs/STDs: often called VD (or venereal disease) in the past, Europeans and Americans spent the last few centuries fearing and stigmatizing these diseases because there was no cure, and few reliable diagnostic criteria. Syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea were especially fearsome (and conflated with one another). The ability to cure these diseases with penicillin was not discovered until the early 1940s, and thus, there was serious stigma based on them, which I talk about specifically in regard to syphilis here.
In the early and mid 19th century, politicians began trying to halt STI transmission through controlling of sex workers/prostitutes (a term I sometimes use in reference to source materials that use the word, though I’m aware that today it is not how many sex workers choose to label themselves). Political opinion swung between abolitionism – attempts to annihilate sex work – and regulationism – recognizing it as inevitable and attempting to make it safer for everyone involved.
One of the earliest policies exemplifying regulationism was the French Plan, which Napoleon Bonaparte implemented in 1802. This required prostitutes to register with the local police, submit to checks for STIs, and, if perceived as infected, be imprisoned and treated with mercury (a harsh and ineffective treatment). The French Plan spread to England, Russia, and the Netherlands throughout the 1800s. It showed what we would call a lack of intersectional awareness, as impoverished women were most often the ones who took up sex work to try to make money, and hence they were disproportionately affected by these policies and imprisoned. Not all prostitutes registered, causing law officials to hound them as well as any women who affiliated with them.
The key parts of the French Plan to keep in mind as we proceed are that the police could arrest women suspected of being sex workers and/or having STIs without proof or warrants; that these women would be considered prostitutes in the eyes of the law, again regardless of proof of having engaged in transactional sex; that these women would have to stay registered as prostitutes forever; and that only women were persecuted in this manner. As Stern points out: “The registry grew to include girls as young as ten. All this was done without warrants and without the act of prostitution being defined in any legal statute as a crime. Men were never arrested or examined or imprisoned in this manner” (14).
Fast forward to the U.S. in the early 1900s. There was no sex education yet, no real sense of STIs as a public health concern. And yet, enough happening in the first decade+ of the 1900s, for Nina McCall, an 18-year old Michigan girl, to be threatened in 1918 with a large red placard outside the home she shared with her mother if she did not comply with a Michigan health officer who wanted to vaginally examine her. The placard would read:
VENEREAL DISEASE. No Person shall ENTER or LEAVE this House Until this Card is officially REMOVED. The Removing or Defacing of this Notice without written authority from the Board of Health IS PUNISHABLE BY FINE OR IMPRISONMENT. By Order of the Board of Health (from Stern 14)
What happened? Among other thing, the Reform Era was in full swing, with massive social shifts, moral panics over “white slavery” (a.k.a. the fear that virginal white girls would be snatched and sold into the sex trade; the same people were silent about sexual abuse when it happened to women of color and immigrants), and an embrace of science and economic progress. Notably, the white slavery panic had effectively killed any hope for regulationism as an approach to sex work, since people were too upset about their day’s version of the sex trafficking furor.
Then ASHA was formed in 1913, under John D. Rockefeller’s influence and funding. Back then it stood for the American Social Hygiene Association, though today it’s the American Sexual Health Association. Social hygiene was code for sexual health because, well, a lot of reasons, many of them having to do with the improper associations of even talking about sex, as well as the influence of eugenics on policies to do with sexual health and reproduction. But for the time, social hygienists were remarkably progressive in that they wanted to throw science at sexual problems, which did mean in limited capacity researching, talking, and teaching about sex. ASHA united people working with social hygiene and abolitionists, which helped get a majority of politicians, scientists, and activists working under the same auspices. The “problems” with sex work and STIs were already on ASHA’s radar, and Rockefeller funded trips where detectives raided brothels and investigated red-light districts all over the U.S.
The next major factor was World War I, which I cover in Part 2 of this post.