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America's Sex Hysteria
American Decades Primary Sources. Ed. Cynthia Rose. Vol. 2: 1910-1919. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p347-351.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale
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Page 347

America's Sex Hysteria

"Sex O'Clock in America"

Magazine article

By: Current Opinion

Date: 1913

Source: "Sex O'Clock in America." Current Opinion, August 1913, 113–114.

"Popular Gullibility as Exhibited in
the New White Slavery Hysteria"

Magazine article

By: Current Opinion

Date: 1914

Source: "Popular Gullibility as Exhibited in the New White Slavery Hysteria," Current Opinion. February 1914, 129.


By all accounts, 1913 was the year when cracks first developed in the carefully constructed nineteenth-century Victorian façade of sexual prudery. In time, this edifice would be replaced by today's media-driven titillation. That first wave of sexual liberation was abruptly stamped out. Indeed, it barely survived the First World War when the heavy hand of wartime government censorship, combined Page 348  |  Top of Article with the fear engendered by the Red Scare (1919–20), drove open displays of sexuality deeply underground. For instance, the once-vibrant silent-movie industry buckled under pressure from government coercion, industry self-regulation, and the consolidation of small independent companies into large, conservative, profit-driven studios.

The second phase of this sexual liberation surfaced in 1964, the year in which the topless bathing suit made its American debut and sex became once again a subject of popular interest. Meanwhile, this sexual liberation soon merged with the larger political and cultural rebellion of the 1960s. Since 1964, sex has become a permanent fixture in American life.


In the midst of this hoopla about sex during the earlier part of the century, the White Slavery Panic of 1913–14 remains quite fascinating. Without question, organized rings of kidnappers did lure some young girls into prostitution. But reports of widespread White Slavery are exceedingly difficult to verify. America has experienced many instances where various sorts of dangers were wildly exaggerated. For example, there were the Salem Witchcraft Trials of the 1690s, as well as the rampant fear of child molestation permeating American society during the 1980s.

The United States Congress, under intense pressure from the public, must have taken the White Slavery threat seriously, for the 1910 Mann Act passed swiftly. Also, the mass media helped to fuel the concern over White Slavery in silent movies such as "Damaged Goods." These films probably terrified millions of Americans (mostly rural folks) who seemed more than willing to believe that America's cities—already teaming with immigrants, alcohol, and narcotics—were cesspools of crime and vice, like White Slavery.

In 1913–14, young girls were afraid of going out in public alone. And many parents admonished their children to look out for the "white slavers."

Today the trafficking in human beings constitutes a worldwide problem. America held slaves until 1865 and today often overlooks not only virtual slavery (forced labor) in factories that manufacture products destined for sale in the American markets, but also sexual slavery that caters to the tourist and adult-entertainment industries.

Primary Source: "Sex O'Clock in America" [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: This article notes the growing willingness of Americans to discuss sex publicly, while lamenting the uninformed, even hysterical, opinions being put forward.

Sex O'Clock in America

A wave of sex hysteria and sex discussion seems to have invaded this country. Our former reticence on matters of sex is giving way to a frankness that would even startle Paris. Prostitution, as Life remarks, is the chief topic of polite conversation. It has struck "sex o'clock" in America, to use William Marion Reedy's memorable phrase. The White Slave appears in the headlines of our newspapers. Reginald Wright Kauffman and a tribe of other scribes are making capital out of the victims of Mrs. Warren's profession. Witter Bynner in The Forum exploits the White Slave in blank verse. Leslie's Weekly points out her lesson in short stories. The Smart Set makes her the subject of a novelette: In the theater, "Damaged Goods," a play of which the action springs from venereal disease, marks an epoch of new freedom in sex discussion. The story of Brieux' drama is being "adapted" to Physical Culture readers by Upton Sinclair. Mr. Rock-efeller's young men in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, have made exhaustive studies of the lupanar and its inmates. Vice reports leap into print. Vice commissions meet and gravely attempt to rebuild in a fortnight the social structure of the world. Is this overemphasis of sex a symptom of a new moral awakening or is it a sign that the morbidity of the Old World is overtaking the New? Does it indicate a permanent change in our temper or is it merely the concomitant of the movement for the liberation of woman from the shackles of convention that will disappear when society has readjusted itself to the New Woman and the New Man? Has it struck sex o'clock permanently or will time soon point to another hour?

One writer in the St. Louis Mirror, James F. Clark, asserts that we must grant to-day to woman the same promiscuity that society tacitly grants to the male. This statement has aroused a storm of discussion and protest. Mr. Reedy himself, tho a radical, strongly dissents from the attitude of his aggressive contributor. He points out that Clark's point of view is the logical outcome of the hideously materialistic theory that disregards spiritual values altogether. "I do not believe," he says, "that given the prophylactic and remedy, women, under the new dispensation, are to abandon themselves to promiscuity. I cannot see that emancipation tends that way. It seems rather to me that emancipated woman, knowing good and evil, will choose her man rather than be chosen." …

Dr. Cecile L. Greil, a Socialist writer, welcomes the fact that society is drawing its head out of the Page 349  |  Top of Article sand of prudery where it had hidden it, ostrich-like. But she, too, fears the hysteria of sex discussion. She especially warns the members of her own sex. The pendulum with women swings more rapidly to extreme degrees, she asserts. This may be because of her highly sensitized nervous organism, which fastens with almost hysterical tenacity to anything which produces an emotional appeal. And surely nothing that has come to her for study or reflection in all the ages has been as important to her, and through her to posterity, as is this freedom of sex knowledge, which guards the citadel of society and makes for a better, finer race of citizens. "But one danger lurks in her midst. Sex freedom is frequently hysterically interpreted into meaning sex license. And the science which shall give her the right to freer, happier motherhood entails all the responsibilities that freedom in any other sense does." The modern social system, the writer continues in The Call, is a terrific endurance test against the forces within ourselves and the forces that attack us without. Vanity and love and sport she admits, quoting a Judge of one of the Night Courts, make more prostitutes than economic pressure and exploitation.…

The necessity of sex education is generally recognized. Yet there are also evidences of reaction. Thus the Chicago Board of Education rescinded the order issued by Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, in whose hands rests the school system of Chicago, providing for lectures on sex hygiene in the schools. The Ecclesiastical Review, a Roman Catholic publication, maintains that whatever warning and instruction may be necessary should be left in the hands of the priest. Nevertheless, the editor, tho grudgingly, prints a list of books on eugenics for the use of Roman Catholic teachers and priests to aid them in following intelligently the trend of public opinion. Another Roman Catholic publication, America, asks for the suppression of vice reports and of vice commissions, except for restricted particular investigations. The publication attacks Doctor Eliot's championship of the Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis. Eliot has no right, in the opinion of America, to declare that before the advent of the Society and its head, Dr. Morton, the policy of the world was "absolute silence" with regard to sex hygiene. "There is," we are told, "a world of difference between absolute silence and the wise and prudent discretion which bids father and mother and teacher refrain from handling the topic in public and without discriminating sense, whilst it at the same time inspires them to say at the fitting time the right word which
A woman, holding a bouquet of flowers, is embraced by her sweetheart, c. 1910. GETTY IMAGES. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

A woman, holding a bouquet of flowers, is embraced by her sweetheart, c. 1910. GETTY IMAGES. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
  shall safeguard their children, and to say it with a circumspection not likely to destroy the sense of shame, which is the best natural protection of the innocence of these little ones."

Radicals and conservatives, Freethinkers and Catholics, all seem to believe in solving the sex problem by education, but as to the method that is to be followed there are abysmal differences of opinion.

Primary Source: "Popular Gullibility as Exhibited in the New White Slavery Hysteria" [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: This article examines the widespread fear of "White Slavery" across America in 1914. During the 1910s many Americans were convinced that young, white, women were frequently being kidnapped, drugged, or otherwise forced into prostitution. As the article notes, fear of White Slavery was far out of proportion to its actual occurence.

Page 350  |  Top of Article

"White slavery," as a popular catchword to cover a multitude of crimes, real and imaginary, has for the past year been greatly developed and strengthened by sensational "stories" printed by the daily newspapers. It has remained for the newspapers themselves to calm the frenzied hysteria for which they themselves are partially responsible. The New York World editorially characterizes "white slavery" as a "new witchcraft mania," comparing popular gullibility to-day with that of the witchcraft days in old Salem. "When harmless old women lost their lives," comments the World, referring to a recent exploded "poisoned needle" case, "for commerce with the Evil One, a mysterious pricking with pins was one of the charges frequently brought against them by hysterical girls, some of whom later recanted. How nearly history repeats itself in a country which has grown, of course, much too intelligent to believe in witchcraft!"

Dailies like the Chicago Record-Herald, the Albany Press, the Baltimore American, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Pittsburgh Dispatch, the New York Sun, and many others, have attacked the power of the catchword, "white slavery," and have attempted to extinguish the conflagration of hysteria which has in many American cities followed the vague but sensational accounts of mysterious poisoning and abductions of young girls. Simultaneously with these efforts, however, "white slave" plays and "white slave" films are attractions which crowd theaters and have become a source of substantial revenue to theatrical managers. It seems evident that the idea of "white slavery" is not only strongly established in the popular mind, but is one in which the public veritably revels.

"How far is this ridiculous delusion to go?" asks the World, editorially:

If the popular imagination is to become heated to a point where it discerns an attempt at abduction in every dizzy feeling of momentary illness suffered by a young woman in a public place, it will be unsafe for a man to offer the slightest civility to any person of the other sex whom he does not happen to know. To assist a woman into a car will subject him to suspicion, and to go to her aid if she faints in the street will render him liable to arrest as a white slaver.

Are we losing our senses over white slavery? Anatole France says somewhere that one result of getting rid of old delusions is that they are often replaced with others of worse aspect. This present phase of popular credulity on the subject would deserve to be regarded as merely silly if it were not for the tendency of an exaggeration of the fancied dangers of the evil to confuse the public mind about its real dangers.

The tidal wave of "white slavery" excitement, according to the Chicago Record-Herald, will soon recede, leaving many of us abashed and mortified by the manifestations it has produced. "In the case of the unexplained and often temporary disappearance of a young woman," this paper points out, "it is unfair and cruel both to her and to her family to jump immediately at the most offensive and improbable of explanations." The New York Sun thinks that the "poisoned needle" case may be of value as acting as a corrective on popular gullibility as to the class of alleged crimes with which it has been associated. "Its discussion has elicited a wealth of authoritative opinion testifying to the practical impossibility of drugging a human being by the means described that should ease the minds of all who have been disturbed by these tales."

That such wild yarns should obtain wide circulation is much to be lamented, but the cause of the credulity which sustains them is not difficult to find. The community has lately been deluged with printed and spoken matter on the relations of the sexes which has prepared the careless to believe anything that may be said on the subject. It is a reason for profound regret that the unselfish labors of a number of disinterested persons to mitigate a grave evil should have opened the flood gates for a stream of obscenity which can do no good and has already done not a little injury.

A few years ago, had we been asked if any creature more despicable than the pimp drew breath, we should have answered "No" with absolute positiveness. When we contemplate the foul brood gathered around the moral autopsy a few intelligent and unselfish souls undertook when they attacked the race old evil of prostitution; when we watch them distort honest purpose to lascivious intent; when we see their ugly leers and hear their thick chucklings as they count the gains they reap from exploiting the weak and the vicious, we unhesitatingly revise our previous opinion and assert that they are viler than the degraded beings on whose misfortunes they fatten.

A correspondent of the New York World declares that his wife returned home from a lecture on "white slavery" and regaled him with the shocking information that 50,000 young women disappear each year between Chicago and New Year. "It was with the greatest difficulty," he says, "that I persuaded her that not more than half of the men in the country are engaged in the traffic of the 'white slaver,' and she is still of the opinion that there is an organization Page 351  |  Top of Article as formidable as the Steel Trust working day and night in the interest of vice."

The San Francisco Bulletin points out that there is a real and profound white slavery flourishing in the community and ravaging society quite apart from the sentimental "white slavery" of the fictitious "poisoned needle case." The public love of the exaggerated and the sensational and its care-free avoidance of facts and cruel truths, thinks the Bulletin, is responsible in part for this slavery. Says the Bulletin:" The translation of the whole matter is that the white slavery enforced by a community's attitude of mind is far more destructive in its effects than the white slavery, real or mythical, enforced by a few wretched individuals."

Further Resources


Connelly, Mark Thomas. The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Hobson, Barbara Meil. Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Langum, David J. Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"America's Sex Hysteria." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 2: 1910-1919, Gale, 2004, pp. 347-351. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 16 Aug. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490200326