Sex Trafficking of Minors in Kentucky and Suffragist Activism to Halt It

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

Today's news warn of us human trafficking in the U.S. and how to spot a victim when you see one. Sadly, this modern day form of slavery involves both children and adults are forced into labor, including sex work. The majority of these victims are women and girls and U.S. citizens. The most vulnerable are runaways - estimates, likely undercounting, published that 1:5 runaway minors became sex slaves. A headline Sex trafficking of minors in Kentucky is nothing new and is connected with the work Kentucky suffragists did for decades to try raise the age of consent to 18 years of age. Year after year, experienced lobbyists would press Kentucky legislators to raise the age (at the time, 12 years old) by which a child may be seen - legally - to consent to sexual activity.

Frances Beauchamp, president of the Kentucky chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), took on this issue of sex slavery also as a part of her group's work to provide services to girl juvenile delinquents and women in prison. Other Kentucky activists, influenced by the work done by the W.C.T.U. and others in California, New York and Illinois to stem the victimization of women of color as well as white women and girls for sex slavery, raised the topic even though it was considered indelicate for them to do so. Usually, the work of addressing sex trafficking was done quietly and on an individual basis, or if necessary, taking advantage of the 1910 White-Slave Trade Act or the Mann Act to try and halt the most pernicious activities.

An example of the individual efforts by a suffragist and missionary worker trying to save a girl from a predator - both presumably white people - can be found in the 1928 biography of Belle Harris Bennett by a leader in the Southern Methodist Women's Missionary Council, Mrs. Robert W. MacDonell. MacDonell quotes a story from Lucia Burnam, Bennett's close childhood friend from Richmond, Kentucky:

While on the train once she [Belle H. Bennett] overheard a conversation between a girl of about fifteen years of age and a man much older than herself, which led her to believe that the girl was being persuaded into something wrong. She called the girl to her and after a long conversation persuaded her to get off the train at Richmond with her. Miss Bennett took her to her home for the night and telephoned to the home town and parents of the girl, who came for her next morning. (Her Life Work, 164-165)

Belle Harris Bennett of Richmond, Ky. around 1909

Much work still needs to be done on the history of sex trafficking and sex workers in general in any study of Kentucky women reform efforts. An excellent model is Timothy Gilfoyle's City of Eros focusing on prostitution in New York City has long been used to understand women's history in this arena. The pull of earning higher wages for sex work than for any other kind of labor by women cannot be overlooked - an example of this is the work by historian Maryjean Wall on the notorious madam, Belle Brezing. The history of women's rights on which we need to have more discussion is not just about immorality and "debauchery" of the sex trafficking nor is it just about victimization of those with the least power in a chaotic, violent world. The complexity of bigotry combined with assumptions about women's role in assuring white supremacy in Kentucky deserves a closer look by historians as we struggle to understand where we are today.

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