"Highway Girls": Sex Work Migration in the 1950s Rural South

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 9:30 AM
Addison Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Stephanie Chalifoux, University of Alabama
In 1958, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested six members of a North Carolina and South Carolina vice circuit on Mann Act charges. The suspects owned a series of truck stops along rural state highways in several counties. These establishments sold food and fuel to long haul truckers, but the greater part of the income generated at these stops derived from prostitution. The locations and clientele represented a shift in the typical operations of southern sex markets. Organized sex rings in the 1940s and early 1950s were situated primarily near military bases. The 1958 case, however, involved women prostitutes who migrated from truck stop to truck stop catering to their traveling clientele.

This paper examines how the shift from a geographically fixed sexual black market to migratory sex work provided women an opportunity to act as independent agents and create a community detached from the influence and control of the men organizing the ring. The women involved in this operation defied the traditional “victim” role the FBI assigned to prostitutes in Mann Act cases. Often referred to as “highway girls,” these women exhibited autonomy in their work choices and habits. Historians of gender and the 1950s have addressed white women’s sexuality in the context of Civil Rights racial tension or in connection with societal expectations that confined women's sexuality to marriage. This Mann Act case (declassified as a result of my FOIA request) provides a new context to examine women’s sexual choices, as well as sexual black markets in the rural South, while testing prevailing notions about women in the 1950s.

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