Presenters: Gretchen Soderlund, May Jeong, and Kate D’Adamo
References to Explore:
- Ah Toy, Pioneering Prostitute of the Gold Rush, by May Jeong, New York Review of Books, June 19, 2020.
- The Deep American Roots of the Atlanta Shootings by May Jeong, New York Times, March 19, 2021.
- [Book] Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917, Gretchen Soderlund, 2013
- [Video] Adam Ruins Everything: How Prostitutes Settled the West
- [Video] Beyond White Slavery (Jessica Pliley)
- [Book] Unbound Feet, Judy Yung
- [Book] Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Grace M. Cho
- Yellow Slavery: Asian Women as Perpetual Prostitutes, Journey to the West Podcast
Roots of the Sex Industry in US 1850s-1930s
May 7, 2021
Kate D’Adamo: So, if you don’t turn off your camera, if you don’t turn off or if you don’t turn on your camera, you shouldn’t pop into the recording. Thank you so much for joining us today. So this is the first of a series that we are so excited to be sharing to bring together just brilliant folks who are working at the intersection of sex work, technology, history and really contextualizing this current moment. So today we have with us to open the series off two really brilliant and amazing folks who work on these issues from a pretty unique perspective.
So just to get us started, Hacking/Hustling who’s presenting the series is a collective of sex workers, survivors, and accomplices of working at the intersection of tech and social justice to interrupt state surveillance and violence faced by technology. So our agenda today, and then of course, community agreements because this is all facilitated of course by community organizers and share a little bit about what we’re talking about this month and how we kind of are trying to set the stage for this conversation.
From there, we’ll give a little bit of background just to contextualize the conversation. Then we’re gonna switch over to our brilliant experts and then open it up to some questions and answers. And then at 1:30 Eastern, 10:30 Pacific, we’re gonna turn off the recording and switch it to really an open conversation where we just kind of invite people to debrief and talk about anything that might’ve come up that you wanted space to talk about in a different format. And so we’re gonna have about a half hour for that. And once again, that will not be recorded.
We can’t promise us… We can’t guarantee a safe space, but we do our best to make it safer and more comfortable for folks. And so our — reserving that time at the end really specifically for that. So these are our community agreements. First off, bring in your histories and please speak from your own experience. All of our experiences are unique. They are where we locate so much of our expertise and they are very much our own. Second, be committed to each other’s collective learning and growing, both we invite people to share more information and we also recognize that we all have a learning curve that is personal and complicated and very valuable when we are committed to moving along it.
Be open to learning. Different experiences are held differently for everyone and we welcome all of those unique and diverse experiences. We request to not share pirated work including books, pornography, or any other art form. While we wanna share as much information as possible. We also are a community that’s very used to having our productions replicated without consent. And so we are gonna be sharing links to things that are publicly available and we invite more work. And if there’s something that is not publicly available, please don’t share it without the author’s expressed permission.
Next, we respect the diversity of our identities which particularly for the purposes of this conversation means not assuming the identities of either organizers or activists for whom we are sharing this space. We don’t assume anything about anyone’s lived experience just by participating here. And we encourage people to disclose only as much as they feel comfortable doing and hope that we are crafting a space where people will not feel pressured to disclose information that that might not feel comfortable.
We practice care for ourselves and for each other. If you need to get up, if you need to stretch, if you need to do what you need to feel comfortable in this space, we absolutely welcome that. We cherish self-care. We honor our bodies and our spirits, and we hope to encourage other students. We practice not using ableist language and we can try to put the link to ableist language in the chat to understand more of what that means but we recognize ableism manifests against both bodies experiencing disabilities, but also neurodivergence.
And mostly we just want to recognize that we’re all on a journey towards collective liberation. And we move there holistically and we move there together. And so we asked all of you to take care of yourselves and to support us and in caring for each other. So our amazing presenters that we have here today are Gretchen Soderlund. So just to give a quick background, and then I invite both of them to feel free to share what’s useful.
Gretchen Soderlund is an associate professor of media history at the University of Oregon, School of Journalism and Communication. She’s the author of “Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917,” and the editor of “charting, tracking, and mapping: new technologies, labor, and surveillance,” a special issue of Social Semiotics. Her articles have appeared in such journals as American Quarterly, Feminist Formations, The Communications Review, Humanity and Critical Studies in Media Communication.
May Jeong also uses she/her pronouns. May Jeong is a Vanity Fair reporter. She is at work on a book about sex work and how it intersects with the criminal justice system. And to introduce myself I’m gonna be moderating this conversation and just sharing a little bit of context and background. My name is Kate D’Adamo, I use she/they pronouns. I work with Reframe Health and Justice which is a queer and trans people of color collective, which works at the intersection of harm reduction, healing, justice, and upending criminal legal structure. My background is community organizing. Now I came up as a SWOP New York City organizer. I organize here in Baltimore on Piscataway Land currently, and I work on policy and advocacy at the local, state and federal level. And I’m so grateful for this conversation and for all of you that are here.
So first and foremost, what we wanted to do was really landscape a conversation. And this came out of a lot of discussions about kind of the current moment that we’re in. And so in discussing FOSTA-SESTA, in discussing OnlyFans, in discussing the internet as it’s happening, what we keep kind of coming across. And what we kept coming across was this very specific experience over and over and over again. And that is that sex workers historically have inhabited new spaces. Sex workers have been early adopters breaching into either new physical spaces, new digital spaces, new forms of technology, new forms of communication and advertising. And then what happens is we move into these new spaces.
We make them habitable, we make them accessible, we make them desirable to be in because you have to attract people. And then when that space becomes attractive, sex workers are ultimately regulated and gentrified and criminalized out of those spaces. And while we were seeing this happen on different websites, on Tumblr, on every new technology that we were existing in, in every neighborhood that we were existing in, we wanted to locate this conversation of what’s happening today, and really put it in a longer term context to know that this isn’t news, to know that this isn’t the first time that this is happening.
And when we started really digging in, it really began with the United States. It began with the history of the United States under this lens. And so what we wanted to do is craft a conversation that brought people together to talk about this thesis, to talk about this idea. And so what we’re doing is we are starting today in the early 1800s and talking about technology, talking about the sex workers, and then talking about regulation and moving from there. So just to… And so what we’re gonna be doing over the rest of this month is we’re starting here. Next week when we’re gonna be talking about things like backpages and magazines, looking at it kind of mid century in 1950s obscenity, then into the early internet. So way back when we had message boards and everyone was at Yahoo and AOL email addresses and then we’re gonna finish out the month really talking about the current moment that we’re in. And the last couple of years of what digital gentrification has looked like.
And so just to set the stage for today’s conversation that’s kind of where we’re coming from. So to kind of ground us in this moment, if this adorable map background doesn’t help. So what we’re gonna be talking about really begins in a couple of different contexts. First and foremost, the context of movement and how that really is shaping what a new frontier even means. The context of technology, how technology is both facilitating this movement and also becoming relevant in different ways because movement means changing communities. It means we interact in different ways. And then of course, what happens after those items is the context of social upheaval. How was our society changing and what was the role sex workers were playing in there?
So first, and foremost, about 1820s and movement. We’re talking about westward expansion a lot of times. So the idea of manifest destiny, the idea that the United States should colonize the Americas that we had the right to was really… it was officially 1845, but it was this idea of colonization that was really taking root. The Gold Rush really facilitated that. And I know our other speakers are gonna speak to this. So this is just to kind of set the stage. And by the 1870s, we’re really talking about the railroad facilitating both the railroad as a form of industry but also as a form of movement. And one of the other things that we have to talk about is that while sex workers were making these spaces desirable, they were also cementing colonization.
And so as we’re moving into these new spaces into the West you’re talking about this really being predicated on the extermination of First Nations folks and Indigenous communities. And really making sure that that became permanent when those new settlements turned into permanent places. And so while we talk about this, we also really wanna invite people to think about those legacies of colonization, of the racialized nature, of so much of who was the labor and who was not, who had access to what and who did not. And we can’t pretend that sex workers were not a part in a very integral part of making sure that colonization was not just this immediate tragedy and horror but really a permanent experience that foregrounded expansion.
Another form of movement that was really important was urbanization. So we were also looking at people moving from rural areas for more agriculturally grounded communities into, because of the growth of new economies, of new industries, of new jobs, people moving out of rural areas moving into cities. And so over these years, we’re also seeing expansion of the size of cities and a real shift in what that meant for who could get a job. Of course, international migration was also changing. So this is coming on the legacy of not just colonization but globalization. During 1903 to 1905, which is gonna be an important period in this conversation. We’re talking about the highest peaks at Angel Island and you’re talking about different racial demographics. So prior you were seeing predominantly Western European Nordic countries being the, the most of the immigrants that were coming over. You’re also talking about that in this period shifting to Eastern and Southern Europe and also Asian migration really increasing at the time.
And of course, this leads to social upheaval. When you have all of these changes happening, when you have a country still forming, you’re really talking about the crafting and the creation of really ingrained racialization and racial hierarchy became much more stagnant. After Chattel-slavery where you had to really cement what a White identity was. “The Invention of Whiteness” is a really amazing book that talks about this lineage and then moving Chattel-slavery dynamics into debt bondage, into convict leasing as a new form of racialized exploitation. Colonization also contributed to this, creating this narrative of erasure of First Nations communities and really demonizing the idea of especially men from First Nations spaces and from indigenous areas.
And then of course, the changes in international migration. And I specifically broke this into three pieces borrowing from the incredible work of The Three Pillars of Heteropatriarchal Whiteness and organizing women of color communities. And it’s a brilliant essay that really breaks down how racialization happens along these three prongs in the United States specifically. This dynamic also really was integral to looking at the change in the role of women over this period and the change… And the role of women really changing the structure of families. Industrialization provided brand new opportunities for women to, even if you’re talking about meager wages, being not the unpaid labor on a farm because you were the second daughter. And so because a lot of families… Even capitalism to this day really relies on unpaid female labor, we’re talking about losing that labor and all of a sudden losing what a family dynamic meant in a lot of traditional ways.
And so industrialization, the movement to urbanize spaces really shifting that. Changes in social dynamics. We’re talking about the rise of the temperance movement which was very deeply tied to the Suffragette movement and temperance being not just against sex and the sex industry, but also temperance movement around alcohol which are two very paired relationships. Movement and changing social dynamics also means growing fears of interracial relationships which foregrounds a lot of anti-prostitution law. When you talk, when you look at what a lot of the fears were articulated as, it was both the idea that if there were White women in sex work, they would become more accessible to men of color and especially men of color who were migrants who had capital because they were in these new industries. And that really became a growing and oppressing fear. And then of course, and I know Gretchen is gonna talk a lot about this, new media really shifting and media really shaping what cultural narratives look like and how fast they were moving.
And of course new technology, which marries a lot of this stuff together and is both kind of the impetus and the result. So new technology in terms of physical movement. So looking at trains, looking at ships, looking at the early automobiles and how that is shifting and facilitating these dynamics. Information technology. So things like mass media, the way that newspapers told their stories and were sold. But of course, mass media means more accessible media. Entertainment being always a part of this. When we talk about information technology, sometimes that’s things that we call news and sometimes that’s things we call social narratives and the relationship of changing entertainment, the way we told stories changed and facilitated just different emotional reactions from those stories.
And finally, economically, mechanized agriculture looking at industrialization and having those new technologies create new jobs, create new forms of industry and really shift a lot of social dynamics. And forms of sex work at the time were really responsive to this. So of course, there’s always been street-based workers, workers who move in public space, who advertise and identify clients in publicly-based spaces. Around especially urbanization, there was something. Basically when I read this, I was like, “Oh, so you mean the first sugar babies.” So when urbanization was really created, you’re talking about younger women who may or may not have even been the age of being traditionally married, but who were in low-paying jobs who lived sometimes independently, with each other, sometimes still living with families. And so how did you go out and enjoy yourself if you have just enough money to get by, but maybe you wanna go to Coney Island. Maybe you wanna partake in movies. Maybe you wanna do this, have a different kind of lifestyle and have fun.
And the way to do that was to engage in economically based but kind of pseudo romantic GFE relationships with men who are willing to pay for those things. And so that was called treating, they were called charity girls and it was really frequent. And there’s some really great books about this specifically that are really fascinating. There were of course brothel-based workers. They were legalized in many locations, it was very racialized and brothel-based work was also something that was generally run by women in a lot of places. So most brothels were actually run really specifically by women who had worked in the industry for a long time. And actually the very first… As far as I’ve found thus far, and please, if you have other information, the first on the books law that I could was actually able to find that was really specifically about prostitution regulation was in 1857 and it was about brothels. And it was really specifically saying like we know they’re here, but could you not put them on the first floor of the building because of windows? And so brothel-based work was a lot of how people understood sex work at the time. And then of course, burlesque and other kind of dancing around vaudeville, around with a kind of married and operated as it’s still often does in that kind of gray space.
And now I’m gonna shift it to May Jeong who is our first speaker, and I’m so excited and so grateful to both of you for being here and so excited to learn. So I will. This is where we all practice our seeing how we’re doing with technology. So I’m gonna stop sharing my screen.
May Jeong: Great. Thank you so, so much. Let’s see if this works. Did that work? Yep. Okay, terrific. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I’m just making note of time so I can end on time. Today, I’m gonna be talking mostly about Ah Toy, who is the first recorded Chinese prostitute of the Gold Rush in California. So we’ll begin the story, I guess, in the early 1800s early to late… Oh sorry, mid to late, pardon me. But I just wanted to mention, contextualize my own interest in Ah Toy which was that I was sent down to Florida in 2019 to write about a series of massage parlor raids that happened. And this is routine occurrence as we sadly all know, but this particular series of raids only really rose to national amount of global attention because one of the Johns was a billionaire Robert Kraft. He owns the New England Patriots football team. And that’s really the only reason why we’re talking about it. I mean, in Florida especially there are the raids up and all the time.
And what I was rather struck by was, I mean as is the case with all vice raids, many vice raids, pardon me, the women, lost their livelihoods. They obviously, there was a lot of shame introduced into personal dynamics. I mean, I’m in touch with a few of them still and they’ve had since then falling outs with family members, they were not able to communicate with other workers, court ordered gag. And so then they were also do seeing support networks. And in two instances, the women were undocumented and subsequently were handed over to ICE custody. And so just terrible fallout. And what was so striking was that, and then since then the interrogation tapes were leaked. And in these intercommunication tapes, we see the sheriffs and the cops are interrogating the workers asking them have you been sex trafficked? And they keep saying no. And it just really amazed me that people are more readily believing of a global multimillion dollar sex trafficking conspiracy over the fact that people want to live and they’ll do whatever they need to to make a living and make choices in their lives.
And so while working on this story, I remember thinking, well, but why is it that so many massage parlors are run by Asian women and also when did this begin? And so I asked myself this question which led me to the next slide, California Gold Rush. The California Gold Rush happens, begins officially in 1848. And this sort of economic opportunity, the news of economic opportunity travels to the East. And this is when workers began to come over. And among the people who came was a woman named Ah Toy. There are no photos about Ah Toy. And the few details that we know about her, we know only because she took Johns to court, which I’ll talk about later. And I think this is what is driving a lot of my personal work, realizing that actually the records that do exist are records of victors and the White capitalist class. And I think it’s such a shame that we don’t know more about Ah Toy than we do now. And I want to make sure that Ah Toys of 2021 in their lives are being recorded and archived for posterity.
So Ah Toy, she comes in the… She’s actually the second woman to come to San Francisco. And I believe the third to come in America. What’s rather telling is that the very first woman, Chinese woman who comes to America actually came as a kind of curio, as part of a circus. She was brought over by a White man and people would pay like a couple cents to go and regard this sort of exotic character and Ah Toy comes, there are the sort of these conflicting accounts. So maybe she had a husband, but maybe the husband died at sea. She maybe seduces the captain who sort of helps her set up. And eventually she ends up setting up shop on Clay and Kearney. She’s now in the middle of the Chinatown. And the thing that I find rather interesting is that that area then grows up to become the red light district. But the reason why it had this sort of sad status of a morally suspect district is because of the fact that men and women of different races and classes would intermingle, not necessarily because there were so much prostitution and gambling and things that we traditionally understand to be vice businesses.
And so she sets up shop and starts working. And within five years she becomes an incredibly prominent madam. And what’s interesting, which I’ll mention, talk about later as well, is that she is obviously, she’s just the only Chinese woman at the time. And then afterwards more people arrive and she starts hiring them, but she’s really sort of playing off of the fact that there’s a lot of like White male gaze on her and she’s being orientalized. And she actually sort of bends up to her advantage by making use of the fact that people are coming to her for… Clients are coming to her for like a very particular experience.
And the other thing I should also mention is that one of the reasons why I became quite interested in this era is that in 2019, I was very struck by the fact that a lot of like anti-immigration legislation effectively ends up becoming anti-prostitution legislation. And then as we’ll see later, this is effectively what happens with the… That the Page Act which is the very first immigration related legislation that specifically targets not even Asian women but specifically Chinese women. And this is actually the thing that becomes a precursor to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which we’ll get into later. And so yeah, so the first technology was immigration systems people making use of immigration policies or the lack thereof to expand into near frontiers.
The second technology I wanted to talk about technology is the court system. So again, as I mentioned earlier, the reason why we even know about Ah Toy is because she took Johns to court. And the reason why she was able to do this is because Ah Toy existed at a time, this sort of like not prelapsarian, I think that’s the right word, but she arrives in America at a time before or xenophobia and racism and sexism and whorephobia could be codified into law. And so, as an example, Timothy Dwight Hunt, first clergyman of the Bay Area. He’s first to arrive in October, 1848. So this is after Ah Toy. And so we… So Ah Toy comes out this like interstitial time where she’s able to actually exert her rights as a woman without be ridiculed or stymied. Again, yeah.
So the third technology I talked about is orientalism. She’s sort of very exoticized but then is actually able to make use of that. And this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot after the Atlanta Massacre as well, why is it that… ‘Cause if you go to China or Korea or Japan it’s not like all women aren’t sexualized there in the way it is here. And so then when I asked the question of where do these stereotypes come from? And a lot of the ideas that we live in today actually have its roots in policy and law. And so for example, because immigration was super restricted, Chinese men weren’t able to create families which paradoxically increased demand for prostitution and as well, there’s a lot of sort of… What’s the word? Stereotype of the Asian male being very emasculated. Why is that? Because when Asian men first came into this country to work they were actually barred from working in traditionally sort of hetero masculine spaces. And so they were relegated into feminized labor, which is whatever laundry, running of laundromats, or running restaurants, and likewise with women. Because of the restrictions that existed in immigration policies, the very first, many of the first initial wave of women who came were in fact prostitutes. And this is again later replicated in the ways in which after the Korean War, I mean, there was one year where some insane number like nine out of 10 Koreans who came to America, this is pre-1965 were war brides. And we’ll get more into that later, but anyways.
So Ah Toy, she goes to court again, making use of the fact that people are hoodwinked by her. She sort of has this like very dramatic presentation. There are multiple records of her being the “finest looking woman I’ve ever met.” And then there’s this also this slightly unfortunate account from a man who was enamored by her saying, “Chinese are usually ugly, women as well as the men. There are a few girls who were attractive, if not actually pretty for example, the strangely alluring Ah Toy.” And so this is the thing that she made use of which I think is actually rather exciting. But also around this time, immigration as we know happens as a result of push and pull factors. The pull factors, of course in this potential for riches will be rigor. And then the pull factor is that there is just unending series of civil Wars in China during colonial time, Opium Wars. And so then there are more Chinese coming in, immigrants, and then we start to see institutions and systems react to this. And so this is when we begin to see things like the Foreign Miners’ Act which specifically targeted foreigners that were specifically be the Chinese community. They would tax them.
And then we also start seeing things like cubic-air, sidewalk ordinance, queue ordinance and these were never explicitly targeting. I haven’t found any literature that specifically says “the Chinese will be targeted” or what have you but effectively ends up becoming an anti-Chinese and series of ordinance, which again, of course we see reflected in modern times with “walking while trans” ban and… I always get this confused. Loitering with the intent to solicit. Again, it doesn’t explicitly in the law target the trans community, or gender non-binary people or poor people or people living in not yet gentrifying spaces, but effectively ends up targeting people who are already marginalized.
And then, so that the combination of this sort of crescendos in sense of xenophobia is this thing called the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. And this was one of the very first sort of vice units that started off in the Bay Area. There were, I forget I did something like Protestant born native men, elected themselves into this committee and started fighting bias. And there’s this one guy, Johnny Clark who… Yeah, Johnny Clark, who was…. the daughter of like mayor of New York City who appoints himself to fight prostitution specifically. And he decides that, okay the thing to do is I’m gonna take down Ah Toy. She’s like this public face of prostitution in the Bay Area. I’m gonna take her down and that’s gonna whatever, that will be great for me. And so he sets out to do this and actually in the process Ah Toy seduces him and he falls for her and that’s the end of that.
And then the other curious thing around this time is that similar to what happened in the progressive era, there’s a lot of rhetoric around conflating. (train hoots) I’m so sorry, this is Brooklyn. There’s also construction kitty corner from me. Conflating foreigners with diseases. And that is obviously what we’ve been seeing for the past year as well. It is, I think I’ve decided that actually it is human nature to want to whenever we want to deflect… When something terrible happens, we want to deflect blame. And the easiest person to deflect blame upon are usually the weakest link or the latest to arrive or someone we can start to be weak. And that has happened over and over and over again. I mean, you see this during the plague for example, I think I forget like 1700s or something. And was decided that it was actually, the Jews were the culprit. And then that led to like a massive pogrom. And this is something that we see over time. There’s like a movie, 1950s movie called “Panic in the Streets,” it’s a Kazan movie. And there’s a plague that happens the movie as well. And the community that is demonized there is like the tops which is at the time in Hollywood where like a stand in for like the outsider. And so again, I think a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about today, it finds its echoes elsewhere which is something to note.
And so Donaldina Cameron was a White missionary woman, Victorian. And what’s really telling is that so Ah Toy survives like xenophobia, Johnny Clark actually ends up becoming a surprise. He was an abuser. So she’s a domestic violence survivor. She comes into a country where she doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t speak the language, no connections, makes a life for herself, but the thing that takes her down is White women. The White women savior class. And so Donaldina Cameron is the most famous among a whole sort of a class of women who came in saying, we need to protect these Chinese women. We need to save them. And there are multiple accounts of these White women coming in and then rescuing Chinese women, sending them to like work camps to purify themselves and then the Chinese women run away. And it’s not to negate that the fact that they’re, yes, I’m sure. I mean, not I’m sure, but their records do say that there was trafficking, but the answer is never going to be rescue. It’s like rights over rescue, right? And so you rescue them, but then you’re taking them out, extricating them from situations that are harmful but also situations that actually offer community.
And so the only way in which the future and these women who sort of were “rescued” and whatever actually ended up, the cost of that was that they had to completely abandon their Chinese identity and became like very westernized and converted. And that was a way, that was the only way they could exist in these White spaces. And then yes, the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act we spoke about. Ah Toy actually retired happily in San Jose. And she died three months before her hundredth birthday. You’ll be happy to know. And then as I mentioned, the Korean War brides, are also women, a group of people who come after the war. And they, again, I think it’s not correct to conflate, it’s not like all Korean War brides were prostitutes, but the most common ways in which women at that time would even be able to encounter a GI were being in camp towns where they will be working as like bar girls or hostesses or et cetera, et cetera.
And the really devastating thing about the Korean War brides is that they… So as I mentioned, they make up a very significant percentage of people who come to America. They sponsor, they’re at the frontiers or exploring a new land, they sponsor family members, at times multiple generations of them. The family members come and then they shun the war brides who brought them here because of the shame associated with like interracial marriage or histories of prostitution or what have you. And I find that very devastating obviously, and this sort of links us to the final slide which is the Atlanta massacre of March 16th of this year where eight people die and six of them Asian women. One of them was a modern day Korean War bride. She met her partner who was a GI in Korea and then moved to… And then her partner, her husband was assigned to Fort Bragg, which is in Georgia, which is how she ended up in Atlanta in the first place. And so, yeah that concludes my swift run through the slides. I also just wanted to mention Red Canary Song who is, I think perhaps some of you may know, I’m not sure, but they work in organizing in massage parlor communities. They do really good work and you can check out their work on the website. Thank you.
Kate D’Adamo: Thank you so much, May. Oh, you went over so many fascinating and really amazing issues that still hold so much resonance. And I think I love that context of just providing a way that, this has been not only so much of our collective history, but also and as came up in the chat really invites us to look at our own personal legacies in the ways that we carry these generational stories with us even personally. And so now I’d love to shift over to Gretchen as we continue to play with technology and cross our fingers for things since it’s the first one. – Yeah.
Gretchen Soderlund: Oops. All right. Am I up on everyone’s screen?
Kate D’Adamo: Looks great.
Gretchen Soderlund: All right. Thank you so much, May and I also wanted to… Oh, let me set the timer so I don’t run over. Okay. I also wanted to thank the organizers of the event. It’s so great to be here with sex worker activists, scholars, and allies, and it’s just really great to be able to share ideas and learn from one another. So as Kate mentioned, my background is in media. And part of when we think about media, we’re also thinking about communication technologies, and the ways in which technologies that we might not recognize as communication technologies in fact are about our forms of media.
So technologically speaking, the 19th century really set the stage for the present day in a lot of ways. The 19th century saw the rise of the steam and then the electric printing presses that could reproduce texts more rapidly and in higher quantity than ever before. The telegraph was invented in the 1840s and for the first time ever, information didn’t have to physically be carried from place to place. The telegraph also laid the groundwork for a lot of the communication technologies that we have today including the internet. And so by 1900, you’ve got electric lights, you’ve got cameras that can freeze time and capture life-like images of real people, real places, real events. You’ve got moving pictures. Gramophones, telephones, you have electric trolleys in various cities and you even have devices like X-rays.
So, how did sex work and sex workers fit into this changing technological landscape? Well, just like many other forms of work, sex work adapts to and it exploits changing technologies. And of course, as Kate pointed out, sex workers have historically been early adopters and also innovators in technological spheres. They’ve experimented with and thought about new commercial uses for technologies. And they did so very early on. And since I have studied media, I’m gonna talk about two areas where sex work and communication technologies intersected in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m gonna talk about newspapers and payment technologies. And I’m gonna make the case a little bit later in my talk that payment is actually a form of communication and a form of media.
And in some cases in the 19th century, sex workers were innovators, but in other cases, innovation occurred around the topic of sex work. And so I’m gonna talk a little bit about that perhaps like peculiarly 19th century dynamic. I’m not quite sure. And I wanna show how even though sex workers saw possibilities that were inherent in technology, organized campaigns against the sex trade and the way that these campaigns got expressed in film and documentary and newspapers, they often turned this fact on its head, right? And instead they depicted technologies being foisted on sex workers or used to manipulate and entrap gullible and tech-ignorant sex workers. These representations in popular culture were then used to justify increased policing of both sex work and technology. And then that’s a dynamic that I think really intensifies in the 20th century. And then of course, into the 21st century.
Okay. So newspapers and print media. The print media in the US and in other places as well engaged issues of commercial sex throughout the 19th century. In the US you could argue that the commercial advertising driven press developed in tandem with the sexual content that it contained. And a lot of that sexual content was actually about sex work. So stories about prostitution were at the heart of major innovations in reporting. One example is in the 1830s when serialized news coverage emerged around the murder of an upscale New York City prostitute named Helen Jewett.
So serialized coverage is when an event generates sustained attention in the press, right? You get spinoff stories, even spinoff publications like you see here, the transcript of the trial of Robinson. The event becomes a matter of public debate. You get letters to the editor, and the story is followed through over multiple publications through to its conclusion or until a conclusion is foisted on it or forced on it. Maybe another event comes and overshadows the event, that’s the occasion of the serialized coverage. But readers follow the details of all of these events through one medium or through a range of media. And this really fosters competition in the press to get the latest scoop. And strangely enough, serialized coverage was not a tendency in the press before the 1830s, but the murder and the subsequent trial of Jewett’s client, and also potential suitor, Richard P. Robinson becomes the event that made serialized coverage a prominent feature in the commercial press.
And so as a friend of mine likes to point out, behind every successful publisher you’re likely to find a dead woman. So you’ve got serialized coverage or take a development like the interview, right? This seems like a really common sense technique in reporting, right? Of course, journalists would use interviews, but in fact they weren’t widely used or even thought to be credible until William T. Stead, an English journalist used interviews in his 1885 sensational exposé called the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” And the Maiden Tribute was the first kind of lengthy serialized expos that compared prostitution to Chattel-slavery. It was so influential that it initiated a new phase of the social and a new sort of international, global phase of the social purity movement.
So you’ve got serialized coverage, you’ve got interviews, right? Both of these are innovations in journalism that changed journalism itself and that occur and that were pioneered really on the backs of sex workers. And there are a few other ways or different ways that the periodical print media engaged with sex and sex workers during the period that we’re focusing on. So the first is that the press was really a major vehicle for representing and depicting commercial sex and constructing it as both an object of fascination but also as a problem to be regulated, controlled and surveilled. And newspaper stories played a major role in determining whether sex workers in cities and in towns would be viewed through the lenses of pity, the lenses of pity interests discussed, or alarm. And as many of you probably know, the tendency throughout the 19th century or across the 19th century was toward establishing more control over sex work globally. And there were various attempts to either regulate it through licensing or medical inspection or suppress it through criminalization.
And by the end of the 19th century, newspapers played a major role in reporting from the perspective of anti-vice reformers and sometimes even spearheading organized campaigns against the sex industry. But at the same time, newspapers and print media were also vehicles for conveying sexual content and for advertising sexual services. So through explicit ads or through classified ads or through specialized content in erotic or pornographic journals, the print media served as a means of announcing sexual services and of bringing people together for different kinds of sex. And also at times as sexual objects themselves.
So in New York, in the 1840s, you find there’s the rise of a subversive genre of heterosexual male sporting weeklies. They had titles like the rake, the flash and the whip, and they focused on commercialized and cheap amusements. They have a lot of reviews of brothels, of gambling houses and sporting events. And the focus in these papers was really on carnal pleasures. They pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse. And of course they drew the ire of reformers in part because, and other people, because they engaged in way too much libel, they even engaged in blackmail as a way to make money. And they were a very short-lived form, but they might have… You can kind of think of them as a precursor to 20th century alternative weeklies.
And classified ads of course throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were used by individual sex workers and also by establishments to advertise services often using very veiled language. Sex workers and madams created their own print media too. So here’s an example of the Denver Red Book from 1892. And it was put together by madams to advertise Denver’s Red Light District just before a major convention happened to occur in the city.
Okay. So payment. Payment from a historical perspective is an area that I just recently started thinking about and researching. So my analysis here is still pretty speculative. But media scholars like Lana Swartz have made the case that money is a form of communication that parallels other developments in media technologies. And Swartz points out that of all the print media, paper currency, bills are probably the most overlooked form. So with this in mind, I started thinking about the brass tokens that some 19th century brothels used as internal currency, especially in the West. So brass tokens were often used on these frontier towns or where towns had cropped up around mining areas, because where there was an abundance of metal and a patron would purchase a token at the window and give it to a sex worker during a session. Or sometimes the token would be good for a drink at a neighboring saloon or saloon that was connected to the establishment.
So if paper money symbolizes value, if paper money equals value, then these tokens symbolize money and they were good for… They were exchangeable for services that were rendered within the brothels and they also served to advertise these businesses. So when you carried one of these tokens off the premises, the token would lose its exchange value but it would become a durable business card or a memento. And according to Melissa Ditmore, brothel tokens functioned in part to keep workers’ hands out of the till, right? Brothel workers would exchange them for a lump cash payment at the end of the week. And so the token system ensured that workers would stick around for a whole work week. They wouldn’t make a bunch of money one night and then up and leave. But at the same time, it also protected them against being robbed by customers.
And there are some other ways that I think these tokens might have functioned within these 19th century establishments. The first is that because patrons give money to a cashier, the tokens create this kind of abstract value between the money and the service. Clientele wouldn’t feel like the transaction was necessarily being sullied by the exchange of cash. The tokens also forced customers to pay up front. So you’re avoiding a kind of dine and ditch situation. And they also mimicked the sentimental coins that lovers would sometimes gift to each other at the time. These coins were called love tokens. And they were often made by sort of defacing a coin that had value, right? So you would scratch off the face of the coin and you would replace it, or etch your own initials, the lovers’ initials, or an image into the coin. And once that happened, the coin could no longer be exchanged for something else. And brothel tokens were a sort of intermediary form, so they had exchange value, but they also exploited that same emotional, intimate, sentimental resonance that love coins had.
And then later in the 20th century, you have, you’ve got tickets and coins that end up, that are used as metering devices. And I just learned that term. I was having so much fun reading about money last week. So when metering devices in economic terms are when customers pay for small units of time with a worker. And so in taxi dance clubs that emerged at the turn of the 20th century, each ticket was good — men would pay to dance usually with young women and each ticket was good for one dance and then… Or for the length of a song, right? And so taxi dancing got its name because like taxis, you paid for the minute. And then later, peep shows also used tokens to meter out segments of time. And then today virtual anonymized online tokens are often used as a medium of exchange in many webcamming sites.
So tokens in these larger… Let me check my time. Okay. Yikes, I’m gonna skip ahead. I wanna wrap up by just very quickly looking at depictions of technology and sex work in two White slavery films that were very popular. They both came out in 1913. And the emphasis, I mean both of these silent films are essentially cautionary tales of technology that reveal a deep fascination with the methods that alleged trafficking rings use to ensnare their unwitting victims. And so the emphasis in both of these films is on pimping and brothel keeping and nefarious economic exchanges. The Traffic in Souls follows this large scale hierarchically organized trafficking ring that uses cutting edge technology like dictagraphs, model T’s, telephones, trains to manage an army of cadets or pimps, and traffickers use these sophisticated technologies to transmit instant messages to each other and they’re able to outwit civil servants until the print media steps in and galvanizes the public and against what was called at the time White slavery, or the traffic in White women. There’s my… I’ll wrap it up really quick.
And similarly the inside of the White slave traffic depicts this elaborate trafficking ring with a nationwide surveillance system, right. And this is a fiction, but ends up.
Kate D’Adamo: Oh, sorry about that. I was actually just texting to ask if that was mine or someone else’s. Okay, so it sounds like Gretchen might be having some challenges with wifi. And so while we wait for her to hop back on, we are gonna switch to a question and answer period for the next 26 minutes or so and hopefully Gretchen can come back and join us. And so we will start with you, May. I’ll put you on the spot. The questions and answers…you have both talked about so many things that are really resonant and that was really starting to come up in the chat as well about like how these things are still manifesting, how these ideas are still manifesting in our lives. You talked about the trafficking narrative, you talked about white saviorism and how racialized that is. You talked about these conceptualizations of racial, the fetishization and racialization specifically around Asian women, the construct of families and how that’s changed their immigration regulations. And I’m curious, and you touched on this in your presentation. I would love to hear your thoughts on how looking at this historical trajectory how you are seeing it manifest, and what is most pressing and most resonant for you as you’re looking at this longer historical landscape than is often really discussed or covered in these conversations?
May Jeong: Great, of course the first thing is owing to critical resistance language we now understand that it’s not that the systems are malfunctioning, but it’s designed as such. And I think acknowledging that is a great place to start. It’s not like we need immigration reform. Yes, it needs to be changed. But I mean, so I am actually, I’m an immigrant. I’m here on a work visa and I’m currently going through a disastrous sort of time with USDIS. And what’s really striking is Erica Leesman talked about this in her great book about the construction of Asian Americans and xenophobia focus specifically, but the US immigration services actually very recently changed their mandate from helping people come to America to protecting America and Americans from external influence.
And that shift is obviously very worrisome. And also maybe it might help us to just be honest about the fact that America is racist and as such its immigration policy would also be racist. And it’s amazing. I’m currently going through this, I have to fill in this Q and A questionnaire to even apply for a Green Card and an entire page… And so then you go through the questions and it’s questions like, have you ever committed crimes against humanity? Have you ever committed genocide? Have you ever, have you ever, and there’s this entire section of like, have you ever engaged in prostitution? Have you ever been paid for sexual services? And it’s just like reams and reams of these questions and it pains me to have to go through them. But I think again, just acknowledging the fact that America is racist and horrific and all those things in that it is in our very makeup, I think is a good and honest place to begin the conversation.
Kate D’Adamo: I think that’s so fascinating about how especially that narrative of protection and of wanting to protect this construct of America and to view it really through that lens and how much of that lens I think is really naturalized as opposed to recognizing that approach of it is actually a choice that we make. And it looks like Gretchen is back.
Gretchen Soderlund: I’m so sorry. I just… My computer dumped me right mid-sentence.
Kate D’Adamo: No worries. And we were just kind of shifting into Q and A, but I would love for you to kind of just wrap up or if that’s where you were to wrap up your presentation and would you like me to pop off the screen share for you again?
Gretchen Soderlund: Sure, I could just wrap up without and just in case that was what pushed my computer over the edge. So let me just go ahead and wrap up without the slide. So where… Oh, I was talking about how in these early White slavery, the silent films, they depicted these very tech savvy traffickers. And I think I was saying that was, that fiction of the tech savvy trafficker then becomes the justification, for the expansion of local and national police forces. But these are representations that you continue to see into the present day. So sex workers are very rarely seen as being early adapters or even using technologies themselves, right? So you’ve got this fear of women and femmes using technology, fear of them communicating, right? But we all know that sex workers communicate and they communicate a lot.
And what gets lost in these narratives is that sex workers are innovators in communication because they’re entrepreneurs and sex work afforded one of the earliest spaces for women’s entrepreneurial activities, right? But activities that were curtailed in other areas. And so it was again, open space for some at first until they were systematically excluded like with Ah Toy, until they were systematically excluded from it through the actions of local anti-vice groups, missionaries and the police. But the irony in these representations is that they depict technology as exploiting women and sex workers when in fact sex workers have always been active users in the tools of commerce and communication. And they’ve used those devices to evade detection, right? To ensure their safety, to get paid, to advertise and so forth. And that was about that. And I’ll end there.
Kate D’Adamo: Oh, that actually is a beautiful kind of building. And first and foremost, just gratitude for both of you for your presentations. Fascinating. Absolutely. That’s like a personal nerd on this kind of stuff. Absolutely incredibly interesting. And that actually what you were just saying about like this creation of the victimizer, the creation of the other, I think builds so beautifully on kind of what May was saying about immigration and how we’re constructing these ideas of who is, and then how they utilize technology. And during the pandemic, I know it came up that like how do you avoid trafficking? you keep your kids off Instagram. Because they’re using these new mediums.
And before we go to other questions, I’m curious if you had questions for each other and you guys talked about such complementary things in such similar spaces. And I also didn’t realize until I was reading through your bios where I was like, oh, we have two people who… We have a journalist and an academic who talks about journalism in conversation with each other. And so much of this is about media narrative too and the persistence of it. So I was wondering if you had questions for each other first and foremost?
May Jeong: I have a question for Gretchen. I read her excellent book. I have a copy of it here and yeah, I mean, every other page is like dogeared and visible on marginalia. And the question that I kept coming back to your reading it was just a simple one which is, why has this narrative endured? Why do we see a 1800s, progressive era now? Why?
Gretchen Soderlund: Well, I think that there are a few reasons that it’s endured, but one of course is migration. So you tend to see trafficking narratives and real trafficking occurred during periods where there’s a lot of movement of people. And so if you think about the United States and the period when tight immigration laws were put into place, there was less this talk at least domestically about trafficking. And then in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this new sort of people were talking about this new period of globalization, right. That’s when we started in the US to see trafficking narratives resurface. And it was really, for I think that even though anti-trafficking activists and sex workers, activists are trying to find some common ground now, I think that on the whole the trafficking narratives often have the function of silencing and muzzling and even dehumanizing, I would argue, sex workers.
And so in the 1990s, when I first started thinking about these things, sex workers’ rights activists were starting to make some inroads on the kind of national scene. And part of that was around their emphasis on harm reduction. And so I had one friend who had this really great business card, sex worker, and on one side the business card had her in a kind of sexy repose just looking really beautiful and seductive. And then on the other side, she offered her services for, as an HIV/AIDS counselor and safe sex expert. And you started to see more sex worker activists on national news. And then the trafficking narrative kind of resurfaced, and those voices were silenced on television and so forth. So I think so much of it has to do with immigration and the movement of people.
And May, so I’m just so struck by your work. I think that you’re a beautiful writer and that you’re telling stories that need to be told. And you’re part of sort of an emerging movement of journalists who really delve into the past right now. Now I think increasingly journalists are starting to do historical work and to find that one in this new kind of informational context. One function that they can serve is to provide historical context. And I think that’s really great. And I guess I’m wondering how… Well, maybe it’s not a question so much as just I’m pointing out that you’re doing this very important work of showing how racial hierarchies operate and have operated within sex work. And one of the things that you do so nicely in the Ah Toy piece is that you show that the White sex workers thrived in part at the expense of some of the Asian sex workers whose activities were being suppressed. And I was wondering if you see a similar dynamic today, there’s the question part of it?
May Jeong: Oh, completely. Yeah, I think most working sex workers know that racial hierarchy exists and it’s sort of assumed… It’s unquestion… It goes unquestioned that Black sex workers would maybe get paid less than if you’re just like platonic ideal by certain standards. Really, I think it’s all about norms and we have this platonic ideal of what constitutes an idealized woman. And usually in a lot of Americans’ imagination, it’s probably blonde hair, blue eyed and then anyone who approximates that platonic ideal can charge a premium. And sex workers I’ve spoken with from my research. Like, we’ve joked about how, they’ve said that the White girl can be like, I don’t know, heavy drug user and maybe she hasn’t showered in a fortnight and is like not actually appealing but that she can still charge extras.
And then all the rest of us are doing everything we can to sort of approximate Whiteness. But so, yeah, so that happens a lot and this is part of something that I haven’t quite figured out. I don’t have good analysis for it but I’m also rather shocked by like, why is it that even people who have this sort of public facing versions of themselves as being woke or liberal or even leftist, and then in their private lives have maybe problematic ways of engaging in sex. And I encounter this in like lap dance lounges, where I am like immediately orientalized and there’s just no escape. And I don’t really know why and maybe it’s just that like sexual desires and inclinations, you just can’t lie, like maybe other things you can sort of fake your way through, but how we’d really feel inside, all the naked sentiment that’s very difficult to mask. And that’s sort of very uncomfortable part of ourselves is a part of ourselves that’s been socially constructed over time. And maybe arguably like he’s most reflective of the racism and the whorephobia and everything that we live with.
Gretchen Soderlund: Thank you.
Kate D’Adamo: Yeah, there’s so much food for thought there and navigating public space and private space and navigating our work lives and our public personas and who those are going out to. And I know that, if folks are gonna be watching the next, the rest of the series, a lot of what we’re also trying to do is really build on each other. And I already know places where that conversation about having a public persona, having a public persona in sex work on social media and then having a personal life, how to navigate those. And so it’s so interesting. That is already kind of bringing up in conversation. And so Gretchen, the question that I asked May was you guys have been pulling out these themes and already talking about the question of payment processors is one we’re still talking about today. And so of the stuff that you have done that kind of work around, what do you see as kind of moving forward in most resonant or that is landing for you when you read about the early stuff? And you’re like, oh, wow. So apparently that’s 150 years old. When you kind of do that historical trajectory, especially, in the current context of all of these conversations around tech and sex.
Gretchen Soderlund: Oh, that’s a really good question. I mean, I think that one… I think it’s just really important that we’re having this discussion about sex workers use of technology, because that’s such an under explored area, right? And that’s one area where increasingly sex workers have started to assert their own dexterity, their own adroitness but it’s also been this, because so much of the history is written by reformers. So much of what we know about sex work is because they took the notes, they saved the receipts. They wrote lavish reports on what they, on the results of their investigations and sex workers weren’t as actively chronicling what they did because they were engaged in often a form of commerce or just impromptu sexual exchanges. And so I think that the more we start researching the past from the perspective of what sex workers were doing, how they were innovating, the more we’ll see these connections between the past and today.
Kate D’Adamo: I love that line that history was written by the reformers. And I think that that is a sentiment that I’m certainly gonna carry forward. So just wanna give a minute. Do we have questions from folks like you might… I think we have time for one or two about sex work and technology and kind of this historical perspective. And if you wanna place us in the chat and just to give everyone a minute, I do have some pocket questions. I was wondering, is there anything… You guys talked about stuff that is so cool and so fascinating. And so just like those sweet little moments I think are some of the things that like bind us together on sex work, I was having a separate text with someone who was like, oh my God, they used to use business cards too! Is there… What is your favorite, like cute little quirky moment in your historical research that you came across?
May Jeong: I don’t know if it’s quirky necessarily, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the whorephobia that exists in the Asian community and what to do about that. It’s sort of a top of mind now after the Atlanta massacre and in my readings, I realized and also just sort of going back in my own memory, I realized that it’s not always been this way. And so actually, so I’m Korean and there’s this long tradition of they’re called kisaeng which are basically Korean geishas. And there are very famous kisaengs in Korean history who are heralded as like national heroes because there’s like one famous kisaeng who like secretly plays in like a Japanese general who was like trying to colonize a peninsula. And like we love her and they’re like bunch of other people as well.
And as well, there’s a rather famous case. I think in the ’90s called Yun Geum-I who is a camptown prostitute, or I think she was a bar girl and she was brutally murdered. And she is actually what sparked the anti-US, you know, get these American bases off the Korean peninsula movements. A lot of the organizing actually coalesced around that. And so in that instance, actually the anti-colonial rage trumped whatever whorephobia that existed. And I think I’ve been doing personal work in sort of really being proud of that legacy. That that is where I come from. And actually a lot of the tensions that it is today, like to realize that it’s not always been that way gives one hope that it can also change.
Gretchen Soderlund: In my research, I’m trying to think of quirky moments. Well, there are these moments where you find sex workers talking back to reformers and then reformers getting bristling about it and then writing about it. So I remember and I have this in the book somewhere but a reformer went to see one of these White slavery brothel exploitation films. And of course, reformers were very worried about theaters themselves as spaces of hetero social mixing and a reformer overheard some other members of the audience, presumably sex workers saying, “Well, now I’m a tinky winky White Slavey.” They were kind of poking fun of narrative because it was so over the top and exaggerated.
Kate D’Adamo: That is so fantastic. And then it looks like we have one more question. Is there a history of monetary exchange technologies evolving in response to surveillance or tracking of payments?
Gretchen Soderlund: Yes, so the scholar that I mentioned, Lana Swartz has a book called “New Money” that traces some of that history. So that would be a good place to start. And it has a pretty extensive bibliography too. So then you could go back and find some of these other histories… Find some of the other work that’s been done on money as a technology. I also have a… The book should be coming out pretty soon, but I have a former grad student named Ashley Cortez who does work on indigenous currency and is writing some of that history as well. But her, and has a couple of standalone articles but her name is Ashley Cortez. And I’ll just put it in the chat.
Kate D’Adamo: We will certainly track that down. And that’s definitely gonna be a conversation that comes up in some of the later ones or some of the later conversations we’re gonna be having really specifically about money and answering that question of what happens when money is becoming increasingly surveilled which is certainly gonna be a growing conversation over the next year in Congress and has been for the last couple of years especially. And so we’re at 1:29. We’re not done, but just to wrap up the slide portion and we do have another question that might be a little specific so we can try to triage that one, but we do have resources that are gonna be made available. So here’s a mixture of the first one is the article from Ah Toy, about Ah Toy that May wrote which is actually, it gave me one of the most beautiful Sunday mornings just to read this article. So I very much encourage folks to really enjoy this beautiful narrative and this beautiful story.
The next one is again talking about the Atlanta shootings and moving up. The first book on this list is Gretchen’s incredible book. It’s fascinating. It moves really fast. It’s a really accessible piece that talks about how journalism really shaped so much of how we talked about trafficking and especially in the context of how journalism and capitalism have become so deeply married with each other. I think it illuminates a lot of narrative conversations that are so alive today. And then we have a couple videos, a couple of videos that are pretty short. They’re pretty accessible. As well as two books really specific. I actually just bought “Haunting the Korean Diaspora” that are really specific to Asian migration context around sexuality. Next week, next Friday, we are going to be moving a little bit forward in history and we’re gonna be talking about magazines. We’re gonna be talking about the mail and we’re gonna be talking about obscenity and how obscenity laws and our understandings of pornography and the enforcement of obscenity laws have really been shaped by this. We’re bringing two awesome speakers, Thot Scholar if you follow them on Twitter. And then Stephanie Kalyor who runs the sex work is work archival project are gonna be talking about some of their work around this. And I’m really excited to be building on this. And so now with that, we are going to be shifting.