After doing a bit of research, we came to the startling conclusion that sex workers now have fewer rights than they did 150 years ago! Many of their rights have been taken away in the past century and a half according to journalism professor Alison Bass, who wrote a book on the subject with the title “Sex Workers and the Law” (Getting Screwed).

In the book, the professor looks at the history of laws governing prostitution around the world. In the past and today, she finds the stigma faced by sex workers (as immoral and dangerous) has not changed, and laws have gotten worse.

Surprisingly, sex workers had more rights before the sexual revolution of the 1970s. The small governments and the small number of females in frontier towns brought about a less restrictive statutory environment in the 1800s, especially in the West of America. In some districts, sex work was legal, which is what led to the development of the so-called “red light districts.” It was legal to run a brothel in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Denver. New York and some other cities had laws against sex work, but police tended to turn a blind eye after accepting bribes.

In the 19th century, women still faced the threats of sexually transmitted diseases and of violence from clients. However, these did not deter many because prostitution was one of the few occupations open to single women who had no means of survival. The very limited number of women in mining towns gave women there an opportunity to set themselves up and do well. Professor of history Thaddeus Russell wrote in a Renegade History of the United States that of all American women, prostitutes earned the most by far. Communities accepted brothel owners (madams) in the West according to both Bass and Russell, and many madams maintained good relationships with the police, even hiring officers for protection now and then.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, laws in the U.S. are markedly less tolerant of sex work than they were in the 1800s. Bass finds there has been major erosion of rights in the last few decades, going so far as to call it “unprecedented.” History has repeated itself over the past two decades and created additional difficulties for prostitutes in the 21st century. They are stigmatized by a new generation of radical feminists who are adamantly opposed to prostitution because they find it degrading to women as the suffragettes did before them in the 1920s.