Urban Vice: Sex, Regulation, and Public Morality in the Late 20th-Century City

AHA Session 269
Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Haley Iliff, Florida State University
Domesticity, Race, and “Civilization” in MOVE’s Philadelphia, 1978–85
Charles McCrary, John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, Washington University in St. Louis
Feminist Activisms and Broken Windows Policing, 1980s–90s
Anne Gray Fischer, University of Texas at Dallas
Emily Suzanne Johnson, Ball State University

Session Abstract

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, a variety of state and non-state actors in major U.S. cities sought to institute “public order” by regulating urban “vice.” Anti-vice crusades have a long American history, but in the late twentieth century, social and political changes created new environments for renewed efforts to eliminate vice, particularly by regulating sex. Suburbanization, the rise of the “religious right,” school desegregation, the decline of urban manufacturing and industrial jobs, the militarization of police forces, and a swelling carceral system, among many other factors, set the terms on which Americans would debate sex and morality in urban settings.

This panel analyzes numerous attempts to regulate sex and vice in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The papers focus on multiple state regulatory practices, including policing, surveillance, and legislation. We also analyze the rhetoric of vice and vice suppression, as propagated in the press, religious reform organizations, and by elected officials. The “moral panics” of the late 20th century—visibly led by religious conservatives, though they were part of much broader coalitions—played a significant role in local, state, and national politics. This panel gives critical attention to the centrality of sex and gender but also aims to show how they are intertwined with race, class, religion, space, and other categories of analysis.

These papers focus on different cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and a number of specific issues—from pornography and anti-pornography to human trafficking to the gendered politics of racist policing—but they are motivated by cohesive a set of questions about the relationships between the moral imaginaries of vice and the tactics used to reform people. How were state and non-state tactics linked, and how did they differ? How did religious ideas about sex and morality inform putatively secular legislation, policing, and other forms of state regulation? In what ways were late twentieth-century ideas and policies regarding urban vice continuations of projects from earlier eras, and what was new?

Devin McGeehan Muchmore’s paper analyzes the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s 1974 proposal for an “Adult Entertainment District,” showing how this shift from policing to land use regulation spurred innovation in the “adult” industries. Charles McCrary’s paper focuses on the role of gender and domesticity in the contested rhetoric of “civilization” as used by the City of Philadelphia, the press, and radical black religious group MOVE in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Anne Gray Fischer discusses the competing feminist activisms that challenged the consolidation of police power in the 1980s era of broken windows policing. Finally, in a historical-ethnographic paper, Elizabeth Dolfi considers the afterlives of the 1980–90s “pornography wars” in the sensibilities, tactics, rhetoric, and priorities of contemporary anti-trafficking “abolitionists” in New York.

As a whole, the panel will contribute creatively to recent scholarship on American religions, the history of sexuality, carceral studies, surveillance studies, and more, showing how these subfields and scholarly conversations overlap and can enhance each other.

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