Mass Imprisonment of Women

America’s Forgotten Mass Imprisonment of Women Believed to Be Sexually Immoral

Under the ‘American Plan,’ women could be detained for sitting in a restaurant alone, changing jobs—or, often, for no reason at all. SCOTT W. STERN

For much of the 20th century in America, a little-known but widespread government program locked people up without trials simply for having sexually transmitted infections—and then forced them to undergo dangerous poisonous “treatments.”

If they were women, that is.

From the 1910s through the 1950s, and in some places into the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of American women were detained and forcibly examined for STIs. The program was modeled after similar ones in Europe, under which authorities stalked “suspicious” women, arresting, testing and imprisoning them.

Many women were also detained if they refused to have sex with police or health officers, contemporaneous exposés reveal. In the late 1940s, San Francisco police officers sometimes threatened to have women “vagged”—vaginally examined—if they didn’t accede to sexual demands. Women of color and immigrant women, in particular, were targeted—and subjected to a higher degree of abuse once they were locked up.

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