Sex Trafficking in the U.S. Began in the 1870s and Continues Today

Tien Fuh Wu (standing in the back, on the left) and Donaldina Cameron (seated, center) with a group of women who may have been Mission Home staffers. (Courtesy of Louis B. Stellman, California State Library)

The Women Who Waged War Against Sex Trafficking in San Francisco

By Anna Diamond

In the 1870s, San Francisco, and the American West generally, was a hotbed of anti-Chinese sentiment. Spurred by racism, exacerbated by the economic uncertainty of an ongoing recession, the xenophobia manifested itself in discriminatory legislation and violent physical intimidation against Chinese men and women. Anti-miscegenation laws and restrictive policies that prohibited Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S. created a market for human trafficking, which corrupt officials overlooked.

“In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, many women in Chinatown ended up working as prostitutes, some because they were tricked or sold outright by their families,” writes journalist Julia Flynn Siler in her new book, The White Devil’s Daughters. “They were forbidden to come and go as they pleased, and if they refused the wishes of their owners, they faced brutal punishments, even death.”

Motivated by their Christian faith, a group of white women set out to offer the immigrant women a path out of slavery and sex trafficking and, ideally, into what they viewed as good Christian marriages. In 1874, they founded the Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House and, for the next six decades, more than 2,000 women passed through the doors of the brick building at 920 Sacramento Street, San Francisco.

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  1. I once read that at the turn of the 18th century, one out of five women in what would become these United States earned a living through prostitution. I wonder if that is because of the lack of currency due to the limiting earlier of Colonial Script. And some of Hamilton’s nonsense (thank you Aaron Burr). Being forced into prostitution through economic hardship seems pretty bad as well. No lack of prostitution here in Maryland this very day, I might add.

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