Slavery and Prostitution in Pre-Civil War America

By Clarkston Doman (’23)

In early-to-mid 19th century America, slave plantation labor was prevalent in the South, while wage labor centered around cities and factories was becoming more common in the North. Robert William Fogel, in his chapter “American Slavery: A flexible, highly developed form of capitalism,” refutes the common conception that the pre-Civil War South had outdated economic and social systems, and instead argues that American slavery was a highly modernized system of capitalism (1). In conjunction with the cotton boom that was supported by the Southern slave plantation labor system, an elite class of male merchants and bankers was emerging in Northern cities such as New York. This growing wealth in cities opened up opportunities for women and girls to become prostitutes. Christine Stansell, in her chapter “Chapter 9 Women on the Town: Sexual Exchange and Prostitution,” asserts that although prostitution is typically viewed as immoral and shameful, it was both “a means of self-support and a way to bargain with men in a situation where a living wage was hard to come by” (2). In this paper, I will compare and contrast enslaved people and prostitutes in the mid-1800s by focusing on their conflicting levels of autonomy and their similar roles as commodities in a broader market. Additionally, I will relate these institutions to modern factory laborers in China and online sex workers on websites such as OnlyFans. 

Enslaved people in the American South were considered to be property, had minimal chance for freedom, and were robbed of the fruits of their brutal labor. Since enslaved people were not even given status as humans, they completely lacked individual freedom and had very little chance for social or economic advancement unless they chose to take the life-risking journey north as a runaway. As the cotton industry grew exponentially in the early-to-mid 19th century, large plantations began implementing “gang systems” that led to enslaved people working “76 percent more intensely per hour” than free Southern farmers or enslaved people on small plantations (1). This greater intensity meant that those on large plantations performed “labor requiring more calories per man hour and labor with less wasted motion” which caused “psychic fatigue and alienation” in addition to physical hardship (1). Although gang system labor provided Southern planters with huge profits, those they enslaved were not compensated for their physically and mentally strenuous work. Instead of granting compensation in the form of wage or freedom, slaveholders instead withheld the immense value generated by the labor of those they enslaved. 

 Contrastingly, in 19th century New York, sex workers were free women who used sex as  a means of gaining economic and social autonomy in a time when it was particularly difficult to find a living wage. While reformers often argued that prostitution caused many women to fall into ruin, in reality, poverty or familial calamity often “precipitated the ‘fall’ into prostitution” (2). Many women and girls pursued prostitution out of need, but there was an “almost equal” number of women who did so out of “inclination” for the benefits that sex work provided (2). Those who willingly became prostitutes often did so in order to live on their own, escape mundane domestic labor or dangerous wage labor like factory work, break free from family supervision, and even to have access to fancy dress (2, 3). Whether women turned to prostitution out of need or desire, they all gained some sort of autonomy from their work and transformed “a unilateral relationship into a reciprocal one” (2). These benefits starkly contrast with the evils of slave labor because slaves worked out of coercion and received no compensation for their work. 

In cases where slavery and prostitution intersect, enslaved people sometimes developed a strategy to  utilize their sexual influences to gain certain benefits from their slaveholders. Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who also acted as his “concubine,” is an important enslaved woman who used her sexuality to her advantage (4). According to Hemings and Jefferson’s son Madison Hemings, even though his mother was property under the chattel slavery system in the U.S., she was legally free while abroad in France with Jefferson. While her life and privileges could never compare to those of a free woman, she did successfully bargain for the eventual freedom of her future children and other “extraordinary privileges” which she received when they returned to Virginia (4). Just as New York prostitutes gained economic and social autonomy from their profession, Hemings found a way to leverage her sexual influence over Jefferson to gain significant privileges that were impossible for most enslaved people to obtain, including others under his estate.

Although slaves and prostitutes had starkly different opportunities for economic and social freedom, markets for both slaves and prostitutes developed in the early-to-mid 19th century where individual laborers were similarly classified by their individual traits and treated like commodities. Similarly to commodities like cotton being standardized based on type and quality, enslaved persons themselves became classified and assigned prices based on specific personal traits (5). Characteristics including professional skills, health, and even “virtues” and “vices” were all relevant to determining the price that a human being  sold for on the market (1). Age was the most important trait that slaveholders considered when purchasing new slaves. The specific trend that on average “prices rose until the late twenties and then declined” emphasizes the idea that slaves were treated like replaceable commodities in the slave market instead of human beings (1). While the slave market was more standardized, prostitutes were similarly assigned value based on their personal traits. Age was likewise a significant factor that many men paid attention to when selecting a prostitute to have sex with. Disturbingly, pedophilia was known as a “gentlemen’s vice” that resulted in men fondling and raping girls as young as five years old (2). However, some girls in their early teenage years realized the financial benefits of prostitution and consequently sought out men by “hanging out about corners” in groups and “flirting with passersby” to attract interested men (2). While grown men having sex with young girls is certainly wrong even if consent is given, the fact that some girls chose to make themselves available to sex work, rather than out of necessity, further illuminates the significance of the economic and social independence that prostitution provided. Unlike chattel slavery, which was a system that exclusively exploited and oppressed, prostitution could be so beneficial that someone would voluntarily decide to engage in it. 

While chattel slavery is no longer prevalent in the United States, American companies outsourcing the manufacturing of their products to Chinese factories is a modern adaption of slavery that has become commonplace in today’s society. According to Jill Schilesinger’s podcast episode with Brian Merchant, author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, contrary to popular belief, overall cost is not the biggest reason why American companies like Apple often outsource the manufacturing of their products to China (6). Instead, China’s lack of regulation on labor is highly valuable to American companies because it allows factories to intensely work laborers in order to ramp up production when demand is high or small changes need to be made to the products being manufactured (6). Much like the gang system used by large slaveholding plantations in the pre-Civil War American South, the lack of regulation on Chinese labor enhances efficiency and therefore increases profits. Additionally, Chinese workers live in very poor conditions and receive little compensation for their strenuous labor, which also relates to the living conditions and lack of freedom of American slaves in the pre-Civil War era. 

Like slavery, in-person prostitution is no longer as acceptable in modern America, but online sex work on websites like OnlyFans has become more common, and instances of pedophilia by powerful men such as Jeffrey Epstein suggest that the focus on age still exists in the sex work industry. Although posting content on OnlyFans does not exhibit the risks of STDs, unwanted pregnancy, or physical harm, its recent emergence stems from similar sources that many 19th century prostitutes experienced. Like how many women became prostitutes out of need, many OnlyFans content creators have turned to the site “out of desperation” due to economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (7). However, similar to women who voluntarily chose to become casual prostitutes, some OnlyFans content creators have joined the platform in order to gain more economic autonomy. For example, Melany Hall, a middle-aged woman who has gained a following on OnlyFans, was able to buy “Christmas presents for my kids … all by myself” because of the additional money she made on OnlyFans (7). Furthermore, although sites like OnlyFans do not allow minors to post content, infamous pedophilia scandals, such as Jeffrey Epstein’s, relate to the 19th century preference of young girls as prostitutes (8).

Slavery and prostitution differ because enslaved people had neither chances for freedom nor compensation for their labor, whereas prostitutes gained economic and social benefits from their work. Simultaneously, though, the two institutions relate because their markets treated human labor as commodities and classified workers by personal traits. Even though slavery is abolished outside of criminal conviction and prostitution is less visible, Chinese manufacturing labor and online sex work reveal that adaptions of the two forms of early-to-mid-1800s labor still exist today. 

Clarkston Doman is an American Studies and Economics major. His article was originally written for Professor Korey Garibaldi’s American Studies course ‘History of American Capitalism.’

References

  1. Fogel, Robert William. “American Slavery: A flexible, highly developed form of capitalism.” Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 1992.
  2. Stansell, Christine. “Chapter 9: Women on the Town: Sexual Exchange and Prostitution.” City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, 1986.
  3. Paul, Mary. “Letter from the Lowell Mills,” 1845. 
  4. Hemings, Madison. “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1.” Encyclopedia Virginia, 2012.
  5. Beckert, Sven. “Making Cotton Global.” Empire of Cotton: A Global History, 2014.
  6. Schilesinger, Jill. “The Secret History of the iPhone with Brian Merchant.” JillonMoney,  2017.
  7. Friedman, Gillian. “Jobless, Selling Nudes Online and Still Struggling.” The New York Times, 2021. 
  8. Shubber, Kadhim. “Epstein scandal’s pressing issue: the role of Ghislaine Maxwell.” Financial Times, 2019.

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