Sex Outside of the Household: State Power and Sexuality from Reconstruction to the Great Depression

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee and SHGAPE

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Immigration and Internal Migration; Military


From the Reconstruction to the Great Depression, the patriarchal household faced dramatic changes that challenged its role as the traditional site of governance of sexual relations. State actors and reformers of all sorts looked at urbanization, immigration, and the expansion of wage labor as factors that destabilized the male-headed household and its role in keeping sexuality in check. Following Canaday, Cott, and Self’s recent call to investigate what they call “intimate governance”, this panel looks at how the state, both local and federal, and reformers responded to the increasing instances where sexuality escaped the confines of the patriarchal household. It documents the legal strategies and policies state officials and reformers used to police sexuality outside the household and shows how the policing of sexuality participated in the expansion of state power. The papers in this panel explore how the desire to regulate non-marital sex shaped a wide variety of policies, from immigration to military practices. They look at how ideas about the nuclear family and sexuality were used to include or to exclude specific groups of people, underlining how the regulation of sexuality and the enforcement of moral laws were influenced by class, race, and gender. In doing so, they show how state actors and reformers tried to impose their own definition of what they thought were “normal” sexual relationships and family forms. Finally, the papers in this panel illuminate how the people subjected to the state’s regulation of sexuality reacted to these definitions of sexual normalcy and how they resisted state’s efforts to police their sexuality.

Papers Presented

Brides & Bachelors: Japanese Immigrants and the “Family of Nations”

In 1909, amid fervent anti-Asian hostility, the United States agreed to allow Japanese women entry into the country so long as they were married and could prove they were the bona fide wives of Japanese men already present. At the same time, the US prohibited the entry of unmarried Japanese men, most of whom were laborers. This presentation explores how notions of kinship, intimacy, and sexuality shaped immigration policies in the early 20th century for the Japanese showing how the logic of the nuclear family and the “family of nations” was used to include and exclude.

Presented By
Sonia C. Gomez, Santa Clara University

The "Porto Rican Experiment": the "American Plan" and US Empire

During WWI, American reformers reversed the prior US military policy of regulating prostitution and embarked on a campaign of vigorous suppression, arresting some 30,000 women on the mainland for being supposedly sexually immoral. This paper examines how American reformers used WWI as an opportunity to export US sexual policy and morality. Both reformers and US officials at the highest levels claimed that the suppression of prostitution and the promotion of sexual self-control went hand-in-hand with the spread of civilization and democracy. In the US occupations of Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Dominican Republic, US officials’ power was more absolute than it was on the mainland. During and after the war, they incarcerated thousands of women to prevent sexual contact between white soldiers and women of color, particularly those racialized as Black, whom officials viewed as the sole vectors of venereal disease. Additionally, US officials sterilized women as part of this campaign. In all these places, however, local women resisted arrests and inspections, filed complaints with authorities, and at times came together with organized labor and nationalist movements to argue that US prostitution policy laid bare the imperialistic nature of the supposedly civilizing mission of the United States.

Presented By
Eva Payne, University of Mississippi

Trafficking in Illicit Love: Immigration Law and Non-Conjugal Sex along the Northern Border, 1936-1944

In the early twentieth century the United States construct a moral border in its efforts to combat sex trafficking. The Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, 1910, and 1917, which combined made the practice of prostitution by any non-native-born woman a deportable offense, while also barring from entry into the country any man or woman who crossed the border for “immoral purposes.” In 1937, the Immigration and Naturalization service began to comply with United States’ duties as a signatory of the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, which required information sharing when each signatory encountered cases of sex trafficking to the League of Nations. Using these reports, this paper examines the sex trafficking deportation cases from the cities of Seattle, Detroit, and Buffalo to explore the ways that anti-trafficking immigration law were enforced along the northern border. In addition to highlighting the functioning of the “deportation machine,” the corresponding deportation files reveal the ways that adulterous couples used the border to evade litigious family members, how the INS pursued non-conjugal sex cases in spite of growing liberal trends in immigration jurisprudence, and, the permeable quality of the US-Canadian border. Historians of women, sexuality, and the borderlands have documented the ways that the southern border became both racialized and sexualized through the enforcement of these anti-prostitution provisions. This paper shifts our attention northward and considers the policing of sex at America’s northern border during from 1937 to 1945.

Presented By
Jessica Rae Pliley, Texas State University

“They are using every possible method to teach the boys self-control”: the State’s regulation of soldiers’ sexuality during World War I.

When the U.S. entered World War I, President Wilson and various social reformers worried about soldiers’ physical safety, but also about their moral integrity. The war, they argued, would put more than soldiers’ lives in danger: soldiers would also face moral temptations, such as alcohol and non-marital sex, that could be detrimental to the soldiers and to the nations’ future. How could the government “protect” soldiers from such “evils”? In this paper, I explore the responses of the federal government and of social welfare organizations to soldiers’ non-marital sexuality. Departing from the military’s previous policy of regulating prostitution, Secretaries of War and of the Navy, Newton Baker and Josephus Daniels, pushed for the repression of prostitutes and promoted sexual abstinence for soldiers. This program of sexual abstinence translated into various policies, from sexual education for soldiers, surveillance of both soldiers and “promiscuous” women, the arrest and detention of women suspected to have venereal diseases, to the organization of acceptable forms of entertainment and socialization for soldiers. Yet, these policies met resistance not only from the soldiers, but also from within the military and certain federal and state officials who thought it improper to regulate soldiers’ sexuality. Looking at the government’s efforts to contain soldiers’ sexuality during World War I sheds light on the federal government’s endeavor to impose an ideal of citizenship based on white middle-class norms; it also illuminates the challenges, made from within and outside the government, against the power of the state to regulate sexuality.

Presented By
Doris Brossard, Rutgers University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Anne Gray Fischer, University of Texas at Dallas
Anne Gray Fischer is assistant professor of gender history at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her first book, The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification, will be published in the Justice, Power, and Politics series by the University of North Carolina Press in 2022. Her research on gender, race, and law enforcement has been published in the Journal of American History and the Journal of Social History, as well as popular outlets including the Washington Post, the Boston Review, and Process: a blog for American history.

Presenter: Doris Brossard, Rutgers University
Doris Brossard is a PhD candidate in history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick (NJ) with a focus on women, gender, and sexuality and modern U.S. history. She’s currently writing her dissertation on singleness in the early 20th century United States and how the state responded to different groups of single people that reformers and state officials perceived as potential threats to the social and economic order. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium.

Presenter: Sonia C. Gomez, Santa Clara University
I am a historian of the 20th-century United States with research and teaching interests in comparative race relations; gender, sexuality, and intimacy; and migration. My first book project is a history of Japanese immigration to the United States that centers on the experiences of women and unmarried men. Specifically, I explore the ways in which marriage created pockets of legal and social inclusion for Japanese immigrant women, on one hand, and exclusion for immigrant men who did not marry, on the other. Throughout the book, I pay careful attention to the ways that gender, sexuality, and intimacy intersect with race, ethnicity, and nationality to produce categories of inclusion/exclusion.

Presenter: Eva Payne, University of Mississippi
Eva Payne is a historian of the 19th- and 20th-century U.S. with a focus on women, gender, and sexuality and the U.S. in transnational perspective. She earned a PhD in American Studies at Harvard University in 2017 and is an assistant professor of US history at the University of Mississippi. She is currently completing her first book project, which examines American involvement in international anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She serves as the codirector of the Invisible Histories Project-Mississippi, which documents and preserves Mississippi's LGBTQ history.

Presenter: Jessica Rae Pliley, Texas State University
Jessica R. Pliley is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender History and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas State University and holds a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University. She is the author of Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Harvard, 2014) and the co-editor of Fighting Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: History and Contemporary Policy (Cambridge, 2021) and Global Anti-Vice Activism (Cambridge, 2016). Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and the Journal of the History of Sexuality and several anthologies. Her current research explores the long history of anti-trafficking movement from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. In the past she served as the book review editor for the Journal of Women’s History. She currently serves on the executive committee of the Coordinating Council for Women’s Historians and on the Joan M. Kelly Prize committee for the American Historical Association.