San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution
Final Report 1996

A Brief History of Government Policies Toward Prostitution in San Francisco

Report Prepared for The San Francisco Prostitution Task Force

by Carol Leigh

Prostitution laws, policies and enforcement reflect a variety of social values including attitudes towards women and sexuality. On close examination, some of the most important factors in the evolution of prostitution laws in San Francisco have related to racial and class segregation. Prostitution was part of in city life in San Francisco from the earliest days of the city, and was greatly stimulated by the Gold Rush.

According to one historian, in 1848 there were two hundred women, "pioneer prostitutes," mostly from Mexico, Peru and Chili.1 In 1850, two thousand women arrived from Europe, New York and New Orleans, including many professional prostitutes.

Madams and prostitutes took an active part in social life for two or three years, and their activities were documented as a sort of "society pages" for this short period. Women in general were greatly appreciated, as the ratio of men to women was fifty to one. Announcements of new arrivals of prostitutes were a main feature in the "Alta California," who always wrote favorably about the arrival of the "fairer sex in full bloom."2

While, on one hand, many women working as prostitutes were financially successful, and integrated with the broader society, others were segregated by race and poverty, as the earliest victims of San Francisco vigilantes, as well as "city planners." 3

The first wave of legislation addressing prostitution came from a committee meeting to discuss, "... the immediate expulsion or removal of Chinese prostitutes to a more uninhabited line of streets." The Committee went even further than was commissioned in that It urged action be taken against all Chinese people, not just prostitutes. 4

In a further effort to move the Chinese district, in 1854, the first anti-prostitution law was written and directed at Chinese brothels. Ordinance 546 "To Suppress Houses of Ill Fame Within City Limits" by women of all races. Echoing current discourse promoted by anti-prostitution forces, the chief of police stated that the law was aimed to suppress "outrages to public decency,"not so much the enterprise itself. 5

In 1866 The Board of Supervisors passed the "Order to Remove Chinese Women of Ill fame from Certain Limits of the City." Later the attorney for the Board of Supervisors persuaded the Board to strike "Chinese"from the final wording.

In the same year California responded to San Francisco by passing the "Act For the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill Fame."The crackdown continued for several months until, as a newspaper reported, the Chinese women and their owners agreed to occupy only certain buildings and localities under restrictions imposed by the Board of Health and Police Commissioners. 6

The predominance of prostitution by the coast shifted with filling in of Yerba Buena Cove and development of the Harbor. Many prostitution businesses moved to Portsmouth Square.

This was a pattern that repeated itself over and over. The prostitution districts moved to the next desirable area, and business interests would follow, pushing the prostitution businesses out by new anti-prostitution legislation. In effect, commercial vice was used by city officials as a sort of crude form of urban renewal.

Street prostitution was not the target of complaints, as prostitution occurred in brothels, parlor houses, call services and dance halls. It is evident from the history of San Francisco that the current prominence of street prostitution is due to the folly of legislators who revised prostitution policy from the standpoint of an ambiguous and confused attempt to both control and eradicate prostitution in this city.

Although later San Franciscans were supposedly addressing the "prostitution problem," it is clear that this policy was the beginning of a strategy that created increased problems for neighborhoods.

By the 1870's San Francisco had begun to develop a specific red light district, subject to revision by city officials. The district was bounded on the east by Kearny, the west by Stockton, north by Broadway and south by Market Street. In the 1880's, retail businesses begun to encroach on the district.7

Starting in 1890, the Board of Supervisors began to pass a series of laws designed to drive prostitutes from the southern end of their range to make way for the westward expansion of the downtown section. Within ten years, the prostitution zone had shrunk to a part of the former area north of Sacramento Street.

The first new law was General Order 2191, issued by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1890. This order "prohibited persons from keeping, maintaining or becoming an intimate of or visiting any house of ill fame...within a district bounded by California, Powell, Kearny and Broadway Streets" (San Francisco Board of Supervisors: 1898). Over the course of the next few years, the Board supplemented this law with further orders.

For example, in 1892, it forbade the use of any building on Morton Street for purposes of prostitution. In 1898, the law was extended to other streets in that neighborhood. Judging from the volume and details of laws, it would appear that the Supervisors spent a great deal of their time discussing prostitution.

In response to the selective enforcement in different areas of the city, the women changed their location, seeking to avoid arrest. That they moved unwillingly is evident by the city's need to pass new laws expressly banning prostitution from the area. Clearly, selective enforcement of vice laws persuaded prostitutes to relocate and avoid targeted areas, thereby spreading the phenomenon to new areas.

In 1909, the Police Commission decided to enforce a policy of strict segregation and created a restricted district within which all prostitution was confined. The report of the Municipal Grand Jury of 1909-1910 noted that "houses of prostitution and their inmates are supposed to be confined within the boundaries of a limited territory." Prostitutes were "not allowed to solicit outside of this territory nor on the streets, nor ... to reside anywhere except within this prescribed district."(San Francisco Grand Jury: 1910).8

External pressures to curb prostitution became even more intense during this period. In 1911, women won the vote almost a decade before the 19th Amendment to the Federal Constitution. In San Francisco, as well as in other turn-of-the-century American cities, prostitution came under increasing attack from social, political, and religious leaders. The debate centered around three positions: 1) prostitution should be legalized outright; 2) prostitution should be regulated and confined to a particular section of the city; or 3) prostitution should be completely eradicated.

Influenced by a group of citizens who preferred the second alternative, San Francisco city officials opened the Municipal Clinic to curb the spread of venereal disease by prostitutes. In February 1911, San Francisco imposed more stringent regulations on prostitutes. The Board of Public Health required that they be examined twice a week for venereal disease as well as that they live in a specified district. In addition, the health commissioners published the boundaries of a smaller, segregated district which confined prostitution to a narrow strip between Washington and Pacific Streets.9

Moreover, the health commissioners made the police "sanitary officers" and decreed that "any person found violating these regulations in regards to limits and boundaries...will be arrested and prosecuted" (San Francisco Department of Public Health: 1911). The implication was that women who did comply with regulations would not be arrested.

In 1913, at the urging of women's groups and religious anti-vice crusaders, the state legislature enacted a Red Light Abatement Act. Eleven of twelve San Francisco legislators voted against it.10

The law provided for the forced closing of property used for the practice of prostitution. Houses of prostitution were the practice, with legal challenges made by property owners, and "tolerance"based on bribes to city officials.11

In 1915, prostitutes in San Francisco lost their protected area when the mayor ordered that prostitution laws be enforced throughout the city. In January 1917, when the state Supreme Court upheld the legality of the Red Light Abatement Act, thousands of San Franciscans met at Dreamland Skating Rink and demanded that the city's brothels be closed. On the night of February 14, 1917, the police threw a circle of officers around the Barbary Coast. Potential customers were sent away and the prostitutes were ordered out. Eighty three brothels were closed and 1,073 women were put on the street.12

Critics of the hard line argued that closing the houses would merely spread prostitution around the city. As critics predicted, brothels were dispersed throughout the city and streetwalkers became a more prominent feature of the industry.13

"Rather than suppressing prostitution as it had intended, the Red Light Abatement Law spread prostitution over a much larger area and into new parts of the city," wrote one historian. 14

Throughout the following decades, houses of prostitution were somewhat tolerated, although street prostitution sharply increased, proportional to enforcement of zoning laws and anti-brothel legislation.

It wasn't until World War Two, at the insistence of U.S. military authorities, that police closed down the tolerated houses of prostitution. Immediately after the war, toleration policies were beginning to be explored by Mayor Elmer Robinson. In 1955 a young candidate defeated the incumbent, appealing to female voters on a morality and anti-prostitution stand.

In 1971, the San Francisco Crime Commission recommended that discreet, off-street prostitution be permitted so officers could devote time to more serious crime. A few years later, when just such an official policy was considered, a 1976 Grand Jury noted that: "We witnessed the unhappy spectacle of considerable influx into San Francisco of 'ladies of the night and mid day afternoon,' ostensibly from warmer climes, when news of the department's disinclination to arrest for prostitution became known." As a result of this opposition, priorities were promptly changed, and the recommended policy was never instituted.

In recent years, most of the prostitution in San Francisco has become concentrated in the Geary corridor from Union Square to Polk Street, the hotel and theater districts and the Tenderloin, due to the large customer base. The current police policy of "mapping" attempts to create a prostitute free-zone within the Tenderloin. Judging by history, such policy will have the effect of moving prostitution further into residential neighborhoods.

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