The Mann Act (also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910) is a federal law that criminalizes the transportation of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
The Mann Act, passed in June 1910 and named after Illinois Congressman James R. Mann, invoked the Commerce Clause to felonize the use of interstate or foreign commerce to transport women for immoral purposes. The Act was aimed at prostitution, immorality, and human trafficking. Congress appointed a commission in 1907 to investigate into the problem of immigrant prostitutes. It was alleged that immigrant women were brought to America for sexual slavery and immigrant men lured American girls into prostitution (or “white slavery”). The committees believed that no girl would enter prostitution unless drugged or held captive. This led to public outrage which eventually resulted in the enactment of the Mann Act.
However, many critics note that the Act ended up criminalizing many kinds of consensual sexual activity and had racist undertones. The phrase “immoral purpose” was broadly used to prosecute unlawful premarital, extramarital, and interracial relationships following Caminetti v. United States (1917), where the United States Supreme Court held that “illicit fornication,” even when consensual, constituted an “immoral purpose.” It didn’t matter if the woman consented, the man would be liable irrespectively; furthermore, if the woman consented, she could be held as an accessory to the crime. While the Act was never repealed it was amended a few times, the most notable of which were in 1978 to address issues of child pornography and in 1986 to address the Act’s misuse against consensual sex by replacing the phrase “any other immoral purpose” with “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.”
[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]