Defining Sexual Order:
Gender, Morality, and the State in North America
This panel will explore the relationship between sexual morality and the state in three American contexts: late nineteenth century Chicago, early twentieth century Ciudad Juarez, and cities throughout North America in the 1970s. In each of these divergent sites state actors deployed gendered notions of morality for their own ends and met resistance and negotiation from prostitutes, abortionists, and feminists.
Each of these papers highlights the ways that a variety of actors struggled over the definitions of sexual morality and the state responses to perceived sexual crimes. The first paper explores how the growth and professionalization of the Chicago Police Department between the 1860s and the end of the 1880s gave the city’s political elite the power to intervene in gendered arenas that had previously been reserved for the patriarchal family. These include increasingly bureaucratized approaches to prostitution, unwanted pregnancy, and the political activity of anarchist women. The second paper examines the management of prostitution in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It highlights the ways that local officials, prostitutes, and federal officials negotiated and challenged the regulation of prostitution and where it took place in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Municipal and federal officials competed for control over the system and disagreed about the meanings and consequences of prostitution. The final paper examines the ways that second wave feminists in the 1970s United States pushed states to tighten and enforce laws protecting women from sexual violence. It also delves into the controversies within the feminist movement over the proper way to engage state institutions perceived as hostile to the needs of rape victims.
Taken together, these papers suggest a reinterpretation of the way that ideas about gender and sexuality are defined and fought over in modern societies. As modern states became increasingly powerful, they also attempted to impose normative definitions of morality upon their populations. While doing so, they negotiated with and in some cases took advantage of non-normative behaviors (such as prostitution). At the same time, non-state actors like second-wave feminists attempted to change the behavior of state institutions to create new norms of appropriate sexual morality. In all of these cases, the bureaucratization of state power and its formal definition of moral norms forced those involved to adopt more formal categories of gender and sexuality even as they fought over those categories and their definitions. Overall, these papers trace three important ways that the state replaced the family as the primary site of contestation over sexual morality in the Americas.