The Vice-Loathing Reverend and the Sex Workers Who Took San Francisco by Storm in 1917
We’re marking the anniversary of America’s first sex-worker-led protest in the hopes that the Biden administration might learn from old mistakes instead of just repeating them.
Trump’s presidency was bad for sex workers. SESTA/FOSTA erased the platforms we used to schedule and screen clients. ICE agents joined police officers to use “anti-trafficking” rhetoric to justify their militarization and expanded surveillance. Sex workers were among a long list of people excluded from government relief as we were targeted, shadowbanned, and barred from doing web-based work. And earlier this month white supremacist militia groups and conspiracy theorists weaponized an old story about sex slavery to help justify an attempted coup. It’s been a very scary four years for all of us and I wish I believed that the nightmare would be over soon.
But as a history nerd and host of The Oldest Profession Podcast, I’m worried that we are set up to repeat the harsh lessons of history and to again conflate harsh criminal penalties with justice, and sex work with trafficking.
On Jan. 25, 1917, sex workers in San Francisco marched to the Central Methodist Church to meet with Rev. Paul Smith, who had organized a campaign to rid and protect the city from vice. This was the first sex worker-led protest in the U.S.
The United States had criminalized sex work during the same period that we criminalized alcohol, abortion, and “obscenity”—the Progressive Era. Rev. Smith, like many of his occupation and class, was upset by the sight of women dancing. He claimed that the “good citizens” of his congregation were being “corrupted on their way to and from church.”
Newspapers at the time responded to Smith’s allegations by interviewing sex workers who worked the streets and cafes near the church. Many said that they only came because of the demand that Smith’s own provocative sermons inspired. Smith also aroused a vigilante spirit and a growing following of righteous citizens who focused their moral outrage on bars and dance halls, not the brutal crackdown on organized labor fighting to raise wages, or the increasingly virulent racism, lynchings, and attacks on minority- and immigrant-owned businesses.
Smith was part of a nationwide moral sex panic, now widely debunked by historians. In 1910 the Mann Act prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for ‘immoral purposes.” By 1917, venereal disease had become an urgent national security issue when the United States entered World War I. Religious leaders partnered with public health officials and local law enforcement to create militarized vice commissions to combat “social evils.” None of these efforts were effective at reducing the spread of STI’s or exploitation within the sex industry. More often, the law was used to prosecute consensual interracial relationships or “promiscuous women.”
Smith’s proclamations against prostitution attracted thousands. He organized a meeting at his church calling on “All Law Abiding Citizens” to discuss how they were going to eradicate the horrors of “White Slavery” from San Francisco.
In response to the impending meeting and to address the existential threat to their legally licensed businesses, local madams and sex workers organized. Ms. Reggie Gamble, one of many female proprietors of a “parlor house” phoned Rev. Smith to set up a meeting. They agreed to meet at 11 a.m. on Jan. 25, the morning of the scheduled anti-vice meeting. Gamble arrived with 300 sex workers who stood in solidarity to defend their profession.
Gamble didn’t pretend that prostitution was glamorous or kind. Instead, she told Rev. Smith and the gathered reporters that evictions and arrests would not alleviate harm or suffering in her community. She suggested policies like higher wages for women, lower rents, accessible health care, schools, and infrastructure. She also suggested that until we respect women, we will keep “ruining” them generation after generation. She tried to explain that the overwhelming majority of those gathered were working mothers. This life, she explained, kept these women clothed and fed, and provided the same for their children. The same could not, and still cannot, be said of the menial work available to so many working mothers today.
Later that day Rev. Smith addressed a crowd of 7,000, urging those gathered to support the aggressive enforcement of vice laws and the appointment of a permanent vice committee “to investigate and suppress prostitution and gambling.” Later that month, 208 cafes, dance halls and “parlor houses” were closed. In February, raids closed every brothel in San Francisco.
In her speech the same day, Gamble made a lot of good points. But what she said was obscured by who she was.
Journalists struggled with her apparently incomprehensible demands. “The underworld of San Francisco, intent on clouding the issue raised by the present anti-vice campaign, and the Rev. Paul Smith, leader of the crusade against open vice in the uptown tenderloin met face to face in the Rev. Smith’s own church yesterday morning,” reported the Examiner. These women “swooped into the Central Methodist Episcopal Church at 11 o’clock in the morning blinking at the unaccustomed morning light, their clothes the best in their wardrobe, their manner defiant.”
And they asked: “What are you going to do about us?”
It remains a relevant question. On July 23, 2019, the Task Force Against Human Trafficking of the Episcopal Church of NY Diocese hosted an event entitled “Decriminalizing Pimps and Johns in New York-What’s at Stake” at the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan. The event was organized in response to sex workers’ efforts to stop the violent raids and arrests on our community. I was at the event and I saw religious leaders, victim advocates, and high-profile feminists encourage police officers to drag TS Candii, a black trans advocate, out of the church to protect those gathered from hearing the voices of sex workers. Our demands remain incomprehensible to those gathered to save us from ourselves.
In 2019, police officers in Florida announced the arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, in what was initially reported as an “international trafficking ring.” Months later, Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported that all charges have been dropped against Kraft. The “victims,” however, are still facing serious criminal and civil charges. Brown reports, “The investigation—aided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—was a mess from the start, with authorities in Palm Beach and nearby counties coordinating to target Chinese immigrant-owned spa businesses for prostitution stings and then announcing the results together as a major ’human trafficking’ bust.”
Many prominent feminists have spent their organization’s considerable resources asking for more criminal crackdowns on on the sex trade, believing, despite all available evidence, that these raids are “rescues.” The Daily Beast’s own Emily Shugerman has reported on the increasing vitriol within the National Organization of Women NOW, over the issue of sex work.
Less than a year after Rev. Smith closed down the brothels of San Francisco, he was selling out shows in Los Angeles. He produced works fetishizing the horrors of the underworld and his own heroism. He would go on to develop The Finger of Justice, the first moving picture commissioned by ministers. The profits from this sensationalized account of Smith’s “fight against evil” funded the construction of the largest church in San Francisco.
Rev. Smith and his policies never materially helped sex workers. However he was celebrated for his continued campaign to “raise awareness” about “white slavery” and “vice.” His celebrity helped galvanize communities into passing similar ordinances all over the country.
The story of Rev. Smith is a tragedy, but it is also a warning.
On Jan. 25, sex workers all over the country will celebrate the 104th anniversary of the protests against Rev. Smith and his crusade with the #OldProProject, an annual event to toast the old pros who came before us. As the new Biden administration grapples with how to move forward, artists and advocates across the country are asking our communities to celebrate our history by listening to sex workers.
I have high hopes for the Biden administration, and I trust that their intention is to help. I just hope we don’t lose sight of the simple truth that you cannot help people by hunting them.