What Is the Mann Act?

Enticement to engage in these acts has always been a crime under this law. Enticement is the process of recruiting a person for prostitution. A violation of the Mann Act is a serious offense. The law qualifies offenses related to prostitution as commercial sexual exploitation. 

The Mann Act prohibits sex trafficking, but it was once a weapon of racism.

Boxer Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the world heavyweight title, faced charges in 1912 of violating the Mann Act. His alleged crime was the kidnapping of Lucille Cameron. Cameron was a white woman whose relationship with Johnson was consensual (the two married in 1912). But the sinister intent of this and many other Mann Act prosecutions was to punish Black men for violating the norms of white society.

In Hoke v. United States, a case from 1913, the U.S. Supreme Court established that the U.S. government could not regulate prostitution. But SCOTUS said the government could regulate interstate commerce that involved sex work. The Mann Act still was used as an instrument of racism.

With Hoke, the Mann Act took on another quality. It criminalized prostitution by targeting instances where it occurred in a multi-jurisdictional way. Many celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin and Chuck Berry, have faced charges under the Mann Act.

The law, referred to as the "White-Slave Traffic Act" at the time, was amended a few times since its enactment in 1910. It is no longer used to justify the persecution of marginalized individuals. Below, we'll look at the Mann Act, how federal prosecutors used it, how it has changed through the years, related laws, and more.

Prosecutors have used the law to prosecute crimes against victimized people, such as underage people. It also has been an instrument of racism and other forms of oppression. In this article, we will cover both uses of it.

More Elements of the Mann Act

Since its inception, in different ways, it has barred forms of human trafficking. It has specifically targeted those involving prostitution. It also placed bars on types of foreign commerce involving debauchery and other immoral purposes.

It is one of the more difficult and dark criminal laws, as it addresses such causes of human suffering. In circumstances where human trafficking is in question, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) likely will investigate any claims.

The Mann Act is laid out under 18 U.S.C. § 2421. Prostitution (even when that crime involves an adult sex worker) is criminal in most jurisdictions. Statutory rape, which involves underage people, remains a crime everywhere.

Under the Mann Act, any sexual activity involving a sex worker is not treated as consensual. Under the Mann Act, engaging in the services of a sex worker is illegal sexual activity. Sex acts engaged in with sex workers are treated as sex crimes. In addition, under the Mann Act, such conduct involving interstate commerce is also illegal. Charges related to this crime can result in long periods in federal prison. Law enforcement and the courts take this offense seriously.

This law was enacted for a variety of reasons. One of the most significant was an attempt to protect young girls who had been victimized by sexual exploitation.

Progressive Era Legislation

Named for Illinois Congressman James Robert Mann, The Mann Act (in its original form) invoked the Commerce Clause. It prohibited the transportation across state lines of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." This law left plenty of room for interpretation (compared to its current iteration in the U.S. Code).

The racially charged term "white slavery" referred to women being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. The wide circulation of pamphlets in 1909 overhyped this. These pamphlets were about a "pervasive and depraved conspiracy" to "seduce American girls."

Also leading up to the Mann Act was the trend of previously tolerant local governments shutting down brothels. They also shut down other legally protected areas of prostitution. Meanwhile, women began to have much more autonomy over their careers and courtship activities.

In the background lurked Jim Crow laws and racist hysteria over interracial relationships. Interracial marriages and romantic relationships were illegal at the time. These laws wouldn't be overturned nationally until 1967. Some prosecutors used the Mann Act to go after individuals such as Johnson. Johnson was convicted in 1913 for his relationship with a white prostitute (Belle Schreiber). President Donald Trump pardoned Johnson posthumously in 2018.

The Mann Act also was used to prosecute men who had sexual relations with underage girls. This was the most common prosecution under the Act. At the same time, it was used to prosecute:

  • Those who had premarital sex
  • Polygamists
  • Adulterers
  • Homosexuals
  • Cases involving the abduction of women (its original stated intention)

Violations were charged as felonies. Women who consented to the relationship could be charged as accessories to the crime.

Supreme Court Review and Legislative Amendments

The U.S. Supreme Court initially affirmed the broad reading of the Mann Act's "immoral purpose" phrase, ruling in 1917 (Caminetti v. United States) that "illicit fornication" constituted an "immoral purpose." Specifically, the Court affirmed that consensual extramarital sex is "immoral sex" and thus can be charged as a Mann Act violation. Other cases similarly upheld some of the law's broader provisions and definitions, although the Court decided in 1932 that a woman's consent isn't grounds for accessory charges.

The first major legislative change came in 1978 when Congress updated the definition of "transportation" and added protections for exploited minors of any gender. It also included provisions targeting child pornography.

Another amendment was enacted in 1986, further strengthening protections for minors and replacing the vagueness of the original language ("debauchery," "any other immoral purpose") with "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." The 1986 amendment essentially ended the Act's role in legislating morality. Additional changes were made during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Charges and Penalties Today

To be charged with a federal offense under the Mann Act, you must have been involved in the transportation of an individual for the purposes of prostitution or any sexual activity that may be charged as a crime. This would include kidnapping, coercion, child pornography, child prostitution, or the transportation of a minor. Additionally, using mail, telephone, or electronic communications to facilitate such an act could be charged as a Mann Act violation.

Offenders may be sentenced to a fine and/or up to 10 years in prison, depending on the severity of the case, the criminal record of the defendant, and other factors. Other charges (such as kidnapping or solicitation) also could apply.

Other federal statutes may be invoked for the types of offenses addressed by the Mann Act, including:

Facing Charges Under the Mann Act or Another State or Federal Law? Get Legal Help Today

If you've been charged with a felony, you could face prison time or other very serious penalties if convicted. Whether you're facing Mann Act charges or something else, protecting your interests by exercising your right to legal counsel is important. Get started by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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