Tuesday, September 22, 2020


Article Index

E. Prostitution as a Form of Slavery

Another perception of Chinese women was that they had been forced into prostitution against their will. This perception may have stemmed from the Victorian view that women would only voluntarily engage in sexual intercourse for love or to have children. In this sense, prostitution was seen as a form of slavery and Chinese men were portrayed as slave owners and traders. President Grant said of the Chinese, the great proportion of the Chinese immigrants who come to our shores do not come voluntarily . . . but come under contracts with headmen who own them almost absolutely. In worse form does this apply to Chinese women. Congress believed that the Chinese customs of polygamy and prostitution revealed an underlying slave-like mentality.

As part of the debate over the abolition of slavery, public attention focused on the evils of coerced labor, including prostitution. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Chinese prostitution, framed as a form of slavery, was unacceptable in the United States; it defied America's post-war commitment to freedom. Chinese slavery was portrayed as more evil than pre-war American slavery had ever been. In 1892, an article stated that there exists in this country, wherever the Chinese have obtained a foothold, a slavery so vile and debasing that all the horrors of [N] egro American slavery could not begin to compare with it.

Chinese prostitution, conceptualized as slavery, was portrayed as an inherent part of Chinese culture. The American public believed that the Chinese condoned this form of sexual slavery that was antithetical to American notions of marriage based on free choice and consent. Historian Nancy Cott described the dichotomy between prostitution and marriage: where marriage implied mutual love and consent, legality and formality, willing bonds for a good bargain, prostitution signified sordid monetary exchange and desperation or coercion . . . .

These fears of prostitution as a corrupting force and as a form of slavery led to the enactment of both state and federal laws to stop prostitutes from entering the United States. In 1870, California passed An Act to Prevent the Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females, for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes. The law made it illegal to bring any Asian woman to the United States unless she could prove that she came voluntarily and was of correct habits and good character. To protect American citizens from the corrupting force of prostitution and to curb the slave trade, this California law created restrictions to prevent Asian women from immigrating. As with the California law, the federal government also sought to exclude prostitutes from entering the United States and therefore, spurred by California's legislation, enacted the Page Act in 1875, which prohibited the entry of Asian prostitutes.

The idea of prostitution as a danger to the United States influenced the use of moral character and lewdness as important criteria in U.S. immigration policy. Granting entry to the United States contingent on a person's good moral character became standard practice in federal immigration laws, as will be explored in Part III. Framing all Chinese women as prostitutes and slaves, and therefore a threat to the nation, allowed both state and federal legislatures to exclude large numbers of Chinese immigrants in ways that would not have otherwise been permissible given the obligations of the Burlingame Treaty. By using vague morals-based language, but applying the laws broadly against all Chinese women under the presumption that they were all prostitutes, the laws excluded virtually all Chinese women. These early laws ultimately paved the way to the renegotiation of the Burlingame Treaty and passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which broadly excluded groups of Chinese immigrants.

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