1 Prostitution History and Theory Marie Magaña Southern New Hampshire University CJ


Prostitution History and Theory

Marie Magaña

Southern New Hampshire University

CJ 520 Criminology and Public Policy

Instructor: Dr. Mustafa Demir

August 24, 2021

Prostitution History and Theory

At the beginning of early America, prostitution was held as a horrible act and means of work (Collier, 2014). This was because of widely held conservative views and stigmas associated with it (Collier, 2014). A significant key trend towards prostitution happened in Nashville during the civil war, where it was legalized and monitored for the first time (Blakemore, 2019). Due to the number of men leaving and other war efforts, women had to work to provide; thus, prostitution was at an all-time high (Blakemore, 2019). In an effort to minimize criminality, the mayor legalized prostitution as long as the women got licensed and went to a “prostitute” hospital to mitigate the spread of STDs (Blakemore, 2019). The mayor’s implementation worked, and diseases stopped spreading; however, after the civil war ended, so did this plan by having society resort back to conservative stigmatization (Blakemore, 2019). Into the late 20th century and 21st century, stigmatization against prostitution still persisted, especially concerning the rise in human trafficking and HIV becoming so concerning (Collier, 2014). It was troubling to know the difference between individual prostitution and those being forced against their will, and HIV/AIDS is so deadly that it was an issue of further concern (Collier, 2014). In modern times, trends towards prostitution are now being advocated for as “sex worker” initiatives (Collier, 2014; SWOP, 2019). It especially concerned protections for these workers against violence, harassment, criminalization, and for the ability to get health care (Collier, 2019; SWOP, 2019).

Court Cases

In 1908, the case, United States v. Bitty, concluded that it was illegal and immorally wrong for anyone to immigrate women or girls to The United States for the purpose of prostitution or to be used as a concubine (United States v. Bitty, 1908). This case made clear that protections for immigrant women were in place, and further the act of prostitution was held as a grotesque act. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the next case, People v. Freeman, which brought criminal charges against a California man who was making pornographic videos (1988). The stigma against prostitution was adamant during this time, and he was charged for pimping and bringing about prostitution (1988). However, the Supreme Court overturned Freemen’s charges because he was paying the actors as actors and did not use any form of his work for his own personal gratification; thus, instilling a division of the two matters (People v. Freeman, 1988). This case further instilled dismay for the act of prostitution and a negative matter of public policy.

Next, the case Lawrence v. Texas held that consensual sexual acts done in privacy or in the privacy of one’s home, are considered protected by the Fourth Amendment regardless of legality towards homosexuality in the state of Texas (2003). This case had an impact on prostitution because it held a more significant look at privacy and freedom of sexual acts and whether they should be protected (Garcia, 2005; Lawrence v. Texas, 2003). Finally, in 2020, the United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. case held that U.S. funding could be withheld if correlating organizations do not follow certain conditions (2020). The condition in question stated that HIV/AIDS funding to help mitigate the spread could only be awarded if opposing prostitution and sex trafficking policy is upheld (2020). The Supreme Court maintained this sentiment and even today, further alienates the act of prostitution in modern public policy.

Public Perception

Only recently have advocacy groups for prostitution been generated. As mentioned before, negative connotations against prostitution have been long embedded into American society. Only at the cusp of the civil war did it maintain a placement (Blakemore, 2019). Before industrial American, women were not supposed to work; thus, this was the only means of employment (Collier, 2014). The system held in Nashville worked, but, unfortunately, it dissipated as soon as it formed (Blakemore, 2019). American ideologies shifted back to the long-withheld view that prostitution is a vile act and an element of a public health crisis (Collier, 2014). As it applies to state and federal policies, each of the cases above brought about charges, aside from the necessity of Bitty, that maintained the shaped perception of prostitution and its abolishment. For example, in California with People v. Freeman where charges were brought about, not just as illegalness, but as an example for the public to demonize the pornography industry by associating it with prostitution⁠—an already illegal act (1988; Cornell Law, 2011). While the legality of this case did not work out for the public perception of pornography, it did instill the already upheld perception of prostitution. More recently, advocacy has provided protections for these individuals and the necessity they deserve for fundamental human rights (SWOP, 2019). Additionally, new policies in New York and Nevada have begun to legalize prostitution within specific parameters (Sullivan, 2016; Bromwich, 2021).


As stated before, Lawrence v. Texas left privacy and sexual freedom open for interpretation and perhaps for future interpretations of prostitution (2003). Next, the implementation of policy and legislation in New York and Nevada opened up a regulated and maintained system of prostitution that can change public perceptions and legality across the nation. These elements in cooperation with advocacy groups may be what is needed to shift the future views on prostitution. An additional component that is future bound is the significance of public health policies that work to provide health care to the prostitution field and to prevent STDs/STIs from spreading, especially to sex workers (Collier, 2014). It is clear from past representation that negative views will persist, but health care and decriminalization developments are on the rise.

Criminological Theory

The Strain Theory can help explain the ideologies behind the development of public policies about prostitution (Agnew, 2015; Williams & McShane, 2017). The Strain Theory explains that “⁠⁠money, material possessions, and romantic partners” are motivators of crime (Agnew, 2015, p. 239). Likewise, these motivators explain criminal activity because legitimate means are harder for these individuals to attain (Agnew, 2015; Williams & McShane, 2017). This perception of prostitution can help explain why there has been consistent stigmatization and public policies against it. For instance, many policies and legislation make prostitution illegal and make clear a need for abolishment. They view the act as an illegitimate means of work or so terrible that people must only be forced into it (via human trafficking). While these instances do occur, there is a further internalization among society that prostitution is a criminal and degrading act that must be marginalized by all means. Take, for instance, the United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. case that made it mandatory each ally must uphold the anti-prostitution policy that the Supreme Court doubled down on (2020). Even in the apparent need for public health resources, prostitution must be denied (Collier, 2014).

The Denver Police Department (DPD) policy states that stops and arrests for prostitution may be made, and discretion, following the guidelines, must be upheld (DPD, 2021). The guidelines further list how to properly process prostitutes through the system (DPD, 2021). This policy supports that prostitution in Colorado is illegal and the public policy that maintains dismay for the act (CRS 18-7-201). The Strain Theory can be tied to this policy and ideology as a criminal means of operating as opposed to a legal and legitimate means of work. There is little room for interpretation in the policy because of the clear directive of prosecution, arrest, and make stops. The department, as the state and community, view prostitution as an illicit and horrible activity that further leads to other criminality. As stated, prior, the state of Colorado states that any and all forms of prostitution are illegal (CRS 18-7-201). The Strain Theory and state ideologies match in the sentiment that the activity is an unlawful nature of “work” that only gratifies the individuals involved (CRS 18-7-201; Agnew, 2015).


Agnew, R. (2015). General Strain Theory and Delinquency. In M. D. Khron and R. Lane (eds).

The Handbook of Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice. John Wiley & Sons.

Blakemore, E. (2019). America Flirted with Legalized Prostitution During the Civil War.


Bromwich, J. (2021). Manhattan to Stop Prosecuting Prostitution, Part of Nationwide Shift.

Collier R. (2014). Condoms For Sex Work: Protection or Evidence? CMAJ: Canadian Medical

Association Journal, 186(10), E353–E354. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.109-4804

Cornell Law. (2011). California v. Harold Freeman. LII / Legal Information Institute.


Denver Police Department. (2021). Operation Manual Denver Police Department.


Garcia, B. (2005). Reimagining the Right to Commercial Sex: The Impact of Lawrence v. Texas

on Prostitution Statutes. CUNY Law Review, 9(1), 161. 10.31641/clr090105.

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US 558 (2003).

People v. Freeman, 46 Cal. 3d 419 (1988).

Sullivan, T. (2016). Introduction to Social Problems (10th ed). Pearson Education.

Sex Worker Outreach Project, USA. (2019). Home Page. https://swopusa.org/

United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International,

Inc., 591 US _ (2020).

United States v. Bitty, 208 U.S. 393 (1908).

Williams, F. P., & McShane, M. D. (2017). Criminological Theory (7th Edition). Pearson


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