Sunday, August 01, 2021


Article Index

D. Prostitutes as a Corrupting Force

Chinese women came to symbolize the most fundamental differences between West and East; the Chinese prostitutes came to represent sexually overcharged bodies that threaten[ed] the moral and physiological health of American manhood, and by extension, the nation itself. The presence of Chinese women made miscegenation possible and caused fear of racial pollution. These women posed the threat of a second generation of Chinese children who would be American citizens or of interracial relationships that might result in mixed-race children that would cause the pollution of the white race. This was especially a threat after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed citizenship to any person born in the United States. After a Supreme Court decision in 1898 extended birthright citizenship to Asians, children born to Chinese women would be American citizens, unlikely to leave the United States and return to China. The fear was that these Chinese children would create a generation of American citizens with a culture of hierarchy, despotism, and slavery, antithetical to American values of democracy and free choice.

The popular perception of Chinese women as prostitutes led to national policies aimed at excluding these women. Lawmakers and enforcers tried to keep out Chinese prostitutes, claiming they had virulent sexually transmitted diseases that were impossible to cure, encouraged the use of opium, and corrupted young white Christians. They were perceived as instruments for the debasement of white manhood, health, morality, and family life and as such, a threat to white civilization. Stemming from Victorian views about sexuality and condemnation of sex outside of marriage, prostitution was seen as a force that could destroy marital bonds and result in [i] nfected wives and children, dissipated husbands[,] and mental anguish and moral indignation. As prostitutes, Chinese women posed a threat to the national citizenry by endangering youthful white masculinity.

Even after Congress banned the immigration of Chinese prostitutes through the Page Law in 1875, medical experts, politicians, and anti-Chinese groups continued to point out the corruption and contamination caused by Chinese prostitutes. In 1875, the American Medical Association wrote a report characterizing Chinese prostitutes as a risk to national health. The report stated that ninety percent of sexually transmitted diseases in San Francisco came from Chinese prostitutes, making them the source of the most horrible pollution of the blood of the younger and rising generations.

In 1876, a Congressional Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration was sent to San Francisco. The investigation examined the effects of Chinese immigration on the nation by conducting interviews with government officials, health department officials, policemen, judges, merchants, bankers, manufacturers, farmers and others. Even though Chinese prostitutes were being excluded under the Page Law, the committee found that those interviewed were concerned that a decision had to be made about how to handle Chinese women attempting to immigrate. There was disagreement about a solution, as some people interviewed by the Committee believed that Chinese women immigrating to California were not proper wives, and therefore undesirable, while others insisted that more Chinese women should be present so that Chinese laborers could form families and produce a generation of Chinese children educated in the United States who would be a very much better class of people than the present race of Chinamen.

In 1907, Congress created the Dillingham Commission to survey the effects of recent immigration on economic conditions, charity, education, crime, vice, and insanity. In its report, the Commission concluded that offenses against chastity, especially those connected with prostitution had increased as a result of immigration. The Commission recommended changes in immigration law to deport prostitutes more easily and recommended criminalizing transportation of prostitutes across state lines.

As illustrated by the views expressed in the media, by doctors, and by politicians, there was a widespread perception that all Chinese women immigrants were prostitutes. The general view was that these prostitutes were a threat to the nation through their corruption of marriage, infection of white men, and the possibility of weakening the white race through mixed-race children. The enactment of numerous laws to prevent Chinese women from entering the United States demonstrates how pervasive and effective this negative perception of Chinese women truly was.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law