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It is named after Congressman James Robert Mann of Illinois, and in its original form made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose". Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution, "immorality", and human trafficking particularly where it was trafficking for the purposes of prostitution. This is one of several acts of protective legislation aimed at moral reform during the progressive era. Its ambiguous language of "immorality" allowed prosecutions for many years, and was used to criminalize consensual sexual behavior. It was amended by Congress in 1978 and again in 1986 to apply to transport for the purpose of prostitution or illegal sexual acts.
In the 19th century, most of America’s cities had a designated, legally protected area of prostitution. Increased urbanization and young women entering the workforce led to greater flexibility in courtship without supervision. It is in this changing social sphere that the panic of over "white slavery" began. This term referred to women being kidnapped for the purposes of prostitution.
Numerous communities appointed vice commissions to investigate the extent of local prostitution, whether prostitutes participated in it willingly or were forced into it and the degree to which it was organized by any cartel-type organizations. The second significant action at the local levels was to close the brothels and the red light districts. From 1910 to 1913, city after city withdrew this tolerance and forced the closing of their brothels. Opposition to openly practiced prostitution had been growing steadily throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century. The federal response to the moral panic was the Mann Act. The purpose of the act was to make it a crime to coerce transportation of unwilling women. The statute made it a crime to “transport or cause to be transported, or aid to assist in obtaining transportation for” or to “persuade, induce, entice or coerce” a woman to travel.” Many of the changes that occurred after 1900 were a result of tensions between family ideals and practical realities. Family form and functions changed in response to a complex set of circumstances of which were the effects of economic class and ethnicity.
According to historian Mark Thomas Connelly, "a group of books and pamphlets appeared announcing a startling claim: a pervasive and depraved conspiracy was at large in the land, brutally trapping and seducing American girls into lives of enforced prostitution, or 'white slavery.' These white slave narratives, or white-slave tracts, began to circulate around 1909." Such narratives often portrayed innocent girls "victimized by a huge, secret, and powerful conspiracy controlled by foreigners", as they were drugged or imprisoned and forced into prostitution.
This excerpt from The War on the White Slave Trade was written by the United States District Attorney in Chicago: " One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement. This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners. Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards “white slavery” in places of this character."
According to Connelly such concerns represented a "hysterical" version of genuine and long-standing issues arising from the concentration of young women from rural backgrounds in the expanding cities of the era, many of whom were drawn into prostitution for "mundane" economic reasons. A number of Vice Commission reports had drawn attention to the issue. Some contemporaries called into question the idea of abduction and foreign control of prostitution through cartels. For example, noted radical and feminist Emma Goldman asked "What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?...Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution."  While prostitution was widespread, contemporary studies by local vice commissions indicate that it was "overwhelmingly locally organized without any large business structure, and willingly engaged in by the prostitutes
Suffrage activists, especially Harriet Burton Laidlaw and Rose Livingston, took up these concerns. They worked in New York City's Chinatown and in other cities to rescue young white and Chinese girls from forced prostitution, and helped pass the Mann Act to make interstate sex trafficking a federal crime. Livingston publicly discussed her past as a prostitute and claimed to have been abducted and developed a drug problem as a sex slave in a Chinese man's home, narrowly escaped and experienced a Christian conversion narrative. Her story in several ways exemplifies the stereotypes used to pass the Mann Act- fear of foreigners, especially Jewish, Italian, or Asian men, abduction and drugging in order to be raped and enslaved, a narrow escape, and salvation through Christian conversion. Other groups like The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Hull House focused on children of prostitutes and poverty in community life while trying to pass protective legislation. The American Purity Alliance also supported the Mann Act.
The 1921 Convention set new goals for international efforts to stem human trafficking, primarily by giving the anti-trafficking movement further official recognition, as well as a bureaucratic apparatus to research and fight the problem. The Advisory Committee on the Traffic of Women and Children was a permanent advisory committee of the League. Its members were nine countries, and several non-governmental organizations. An important development was the implementation of a system of annual reports of member countries. Member countries formed their own centralized offices to track and report on trafficking of women and children. The advisory committee also worked to expand its research and intervention program beyond the United States and Europe. In 1929, a need to expand into the Near East (Asia Minor), the Middle East, and Asia was acknowledged. An international conference of central authorities in Asia was planned for 1937, but no further action was taken during the late 1930s.
Although the law was created to stop forced sexual slavery of women, the most common use of the Mann Act was to prosecute men for having sex with under-age females. The language of "immoral purpose" allowed for an extremely broad application of the law following the 1917 US Supreme Court ruling in Caminetti v. United States that "illicit fornication" even when consensual constituted "immoral purpose". The law was also frequently used to prosecute interracial and unapproved pre-marital and extra marital relationships in addition to the law intended purpose of preventing human trafficking. The penalties would be applied to men whether or not the woman involved consented and if she did the woman could be considered an accessory to the offense. There was also a strong racial bias against Black men with White women such as in the case of Jack Johnson." It was also used to harass others who had drawn the authorities' wrath for "immoral" or controversial behavior.
For instance, the 1948 prosecution of Frank LaSalle for abducting Florence Sally Horner is believed to have been an inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov in writing his novel Lolita.  The Mann Act has also been used by the US Federal government to prosecute polygamists such as Mormon fundamentalists, because there is no federal U.S. law against polygamy. All US states have anti-polygamy laws but it has only been in recent years that state authorities have used them to prosecute bigamy. The twin communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, Bountiful, British Columbia, and sites in Mexico  are historic locations of several Mormon Fundamentalist sects. Mormon fundamentalist leaders and individuals have been charged under Mann Act when "wives" are transported across the Utah–Arizona state line or the U.S.–Canadian and U.S.–Mexican borders.
|Tony Alamo||2008||Convicted||The former American religious leader was arrested under the Mann Act in September 2008. He was subsequently convicted on 10 counts of interstate transportation of minors for illegal sexual purposes, rape, sexual assault, and contributing to the delinquency of minors.|
|George Barker||1940||Charges dropped||The British poet was arrested crossing a state border with his lover Canadian author Elizabeth Smart in 1940. She described the arrest in her book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, in which she intertwined the callous police interrogation with quotations about love from the Song of Songs.|
|Chuck Berry||1962||Convicted||In January 1962, Berry was sentenced to three years in prison for offences under the Mann Act when he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines.|
Acquitted on appeal
|Cann, who was an organized crime figure from Minneapolis, Minnesota, was prosecuted and convicted for transporting a prostitute from Chicago to Minnesota. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. Cann was later prosecuted and convicted of offering a $25,000 bribe to a juror at his Mann Act trial.|
|Farley Drew Caminetti||1913||Convicted||He and Maury I. Diggs took their mistresses from Sacramento, California to Reno, Nevada. Their wives informed the police, and both men were arrested in Reno. The case, Caminetti v. United States, expanded Mann Act prosecutions from prostitution to non-commercial extramarital sex.|
|Charlie Chaplin||1944||Acquitted||Chaplin met Joan Barry, age 24, in 1941. He signed her to a $75-a-week contract for a film he was putting together, and she became his mistress. By the summer of 1942, Chaplin let her contract expire. To send her home, Chaplin paid her train fare to New York which led to his arrest.|
|Finis Dake||1937||Convicted||In 1937, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act by wilfully transporting 16-year-old Emma Barelli across the Wisconsin state line "for the purpose of debauchery and other immoral practices". The May 27, 1936, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Dake registered at hotels in Waukegan, Bloomington, and East St. Louis with the girl under the name "Christian Anderson and wife". In order to avoid a jury trial and the possibility of being sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000, Dake pled guilty. Subsequently, he served six months in the House of Corrections in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.|
|Rex Ingram||1949||Convicted||Pleading guilty to the charge of transporting a teenage girl to New York for immoral purposes, he was sentenced to eighteen months in jail. He served just ten months of his sentence, but the incident had a serious impact on his career for the next six years.|
|Jack Johnson||1912||Convicted||In October 1912, Johnson was arrested under the Mann Act. It is generally acknowledged that the arrest was racially motivated, and that the "prostitute" in question was actually his girlfriend, whom he later married. A presidential pardon was requested in 2009.|
|Charles Manson||1960||Charges dropped||Manson took two prostitutes from California to New Mexico to work.|
|William I. Thomas||1918||Acquitted||Pioneering sociologist William I. Thomas's academic career at the University of Chicago was irreversibly damaged after he was arrested under the act when caught in the company of one Mrs. Granger, the wife of an army officer with the American forces in France. Thomas was acquitted at trial.|
|Frank Lloyd Wright||1926||Charges dropped||In October 1926, Wright and Olga Lazovich Hinzenburg were accused of violating the Mann Act and he was arrested in Minnetonka, Minnesota.|
|Brian David Mitchell||2010||Convicted||Former street preacher and pedophile; convicted in 2010 of interstate kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor across state lines connection with the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart; currently serving a life sentence in federal prison.|
|Jack Schaap||2012||Convicted||Pastor at mega-church First Baptist Church (Hammond, Indiana) and Chancellor of Hyles–Anderson College, pled guilty to transportation of a minor across state lines to have sex with a 16 year old he was counseling. He is awaiting sentencing.|
In 1978, Congress updated the act's definition of "transportation" and added protections against commercial sexual exploitation for minors. It added a 1986 amendment which further protected minors and added protection for adult males. In particular, as part of a larger 1986 bill focused on criminalizing various aspects of child pornography that passed unanimously in both houses of Congress, the Mann act was further amended to replace the ambiguous "debauchery" and "any other immoral purpose" with the more specific "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense" as well as to make it gender-neutral.
While the effects of the Mann Act were meant to try and combat forced prostitution, it had repercussions that extended into consensual sexual activity. Because the Mann Act lacked specificity, it criminalized many who were not actually participating in prostitution. It became a way to persecute many unmarried couples participating in premarital or extramarital activities, especially when it involved crossing state lines such as the cases for Chuck Berry and Jack Johnson. The Mann Act also became a form of blackmail, by wives suspicions of cheating husbands and other women alike. This was the case for both Drew Caminetti and Maury Diggs. Both men from Sacramento, California, were married and took their mistresses Lola Norris and Marsha Warrington to Reno, Nevada. The men’s wives contacted the police, and were then arrested in Reno, and found guilty under the Mann Act. “In 1914 a woman by the name of Jessie A. Cope was arrested in Chicago for attempting to bribe an official to assist her in the blackmail of Colonel Charles Alexander of Providence Rhode Island, on a white slavery charge. The two had met two years previous in LA, Alexander had promised to divorce his wife, and marry her. When he attempted to leave her, Cope and her mother perused him to Providence. Cope consulted lawyers in Providence and LA, then brought the charges in Chicago, where she as arrested.” Upon continually blackmail accounts the New York Times became an advocate against the Mann Act. “In 1915 the paper published an editorial pointing out how the act led to extortion. In 1916 it labeled the Mann Act “The Blackmail Act,” noting that its dangers had been clear from the start. The act made a harmless spree or simple elopement a crime, and the blackmail that resulted from the Mann Act was worse than the prostitution it sought to suppress.”
While the Mann Act has never been repealed, it has been amended and alter since its initial passing. The Mann Act continued essentially unchanged until 1978 and expanded coverage to issues around child pornography and exploitation. Most recently, in 1986, The Mann Act was significantly altered, making the whole Act gender neutral, making the transportation of "any person" and changed the wording to "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense" illegal. Since sodomy was illegal until Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the law would also apply to consenting adult gay couples, although rarely enforced in this way. Since 1978 most convictions have been related to child abuse and child trafficking cases.