HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Rethinking Complicity in the Surveillance of Sex Workers: Policing and Prostitution in America's Model City

Scott W. Stern, Rethinking Complicity in the Surveillance of Sex Workers: Policing and Prostitution in America's Model City, 31 Yale J. L. & Fem. (2020):

This Note uncovers a history that has been largely ignored, dismissed, and sometimes even intentionally obscured: the history of the policing of sex workers in the twentieth century..When most lawyers think about the surveillance of sex workers, they think of a standard cast of characters: police, prosecutors, pimps, purchasers, and procurers. But the surveillance of sex workers has always been much broader and renders a far greater number of actors complicit. This Note uncovers the significant (yet often overlooked) roles played by four groups in surveilling sex workers: (1) the federal government, (2) elite women, (3) public health authorities, and (4) major universities. As a case study, the Note focuses on the city of New Haven, Connecticut, during the twentieth century. Based on thousands of original documents residing in archives all over the country, as well as newspaper articles, institutional reports, prison files, and original oral history interviews, this study seeks to shine a light on the complicity of powerful people in policing the lives of marginalized people. It is vital to understand this complicity because to do otherwise would be to misunderstand and underestimate the relentlessness of policing in the lives of those who sell sex. Throughout the twentieth century, sex workers did not merely need to dodge the police; they had to avoid federal agents, social workers, public health officials, and academic experts, all of whom were constantly invading the places where sex workers lived and worked and trying to have them locked up--the better to reform them. These different agents frequently collaborated on programs and systems to surveil sex workers, often working alongside local law enforcement to police suspected women. Scholars and readers who do not appreciate how vast this complicity was risk minimizing the constraints and stressors present in sex workers' lives. Complicity is thus an effective lens through which to better understand the lived reality of sex workers throughout history. By learning to see this complicity in the past, we can be better primed to spot it in the present. By understanding the panoptic reality of prostitution throughout the twentieth century, we can better dismantle systems of oppression in the twenty-first.This Note is an unusual work of legal scholarship, and not just because it focuses on a subject that for many years was either ignored or treated with disrespect. It is unusual because it relies heavily on narrative, reproducing in enormous detail the history of sex work in a relatively small American city. This Note was written because this history has been neglected, ignored, or caricatured for too long, and the narrative detail below is meant to reclaim and recenter a past that has been almost wholly forgotten.

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