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Sally Stanford - Vices Or Crimes, Or Both

prostitution act women congress


A longstanding debate among criminologists concerns how to treat certain crimes. Some argue activities such as gambling, drug use, pornography, and prostitution should simply be considered social "vices" (immoral actions) and not crimes. While they may be morally offensive, they should not be the subject of criminal laws. These activities are often called "victimless crimes" because they usually involve an agreed upon exchange of goods and services between adults. Some believe if these vices are decriminalized, it would decrease government involvement in people's lives and reduce criminal caseloads in court.

Opponents to decriminalizing vice crimes argue that these crimes impose financial and social costs on individuals and society in general. As a result, they should not be considered victimless. They point out that compulsive gamblers and drug addicts are often driven to steal in order to support their expensive habits. The resulting victims endure the costs of replacing damaged or stolen property as well as increasing costs of protection and insurance.

In regard to prostitution, it affects women, children, and minorities more so than other groups and places them at risk of assault and health dangers. Individuals, and society as a whole, face increased costs for medical treatment and the spread of disease both nationally and internationally. Inaddition, prostitution is seen as one of soci ety's clearest expressions of the sexual domination of men over women and young people.

In 1873 Congress took a major step in criminalizing vice by the passage of the Comstock Law. The act targeted what it considered obscene literature, sought to restrict the flow of birth control information, and was used to fight abortion. In 1910 at a peak in vice-fighting in the United States, Congress passed the Mann Act. The act targeted what it termed "white slavery," or forced prostitution. The law assumed that all women in prostitution were involved against their will.

Congress concluded that women and girls in prostitution had become indentured sex slaves, forced into prostitution for someone else's financial gain because of the debts they owed. Specifically, the act made it a federal crime to transport women over state lines for immoral or sexual purposes. In the first five years of the act, over one thousand defendants were found guilty of Mann Act violations. Most offenders were male, but a study found some 160 women were convicted in one ten-year period beginning in the late 1920s.

In later times, fear rose of drug-addicted prostitutes becoming slaves, kept in houses and given drugs in exchange for sex with the dealers and their clients. In 1986 Congress amended the act to include any sexual activity that could be considered a criminal offense.

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