Prostitution is one of the oldest vices of the human race, and civilized communities have been experimenting with its control for centuries. The only definite conclusion that has been reached is that it is likely to exist as long as the passions of the human beings remain what they are today. – Victor Houston, in his report to Congress on prostitution in Honolulu
Though the early 20th century social purity movement came to Hawaii as to every other place there were Americans, the anti-whore laws it spawned were never strictly enforced. This is partly due to the fact that neither the natives nor the sizable Asian minority saw prostitution as a “social evil” as the puritanical whites did, and the wealthy planters at the top of white society wanted hookers available to protect their daughters from being raped or seduced by laborers or American sailors. As in many other places and times, the police were therefore given the power to “regulate” prostitution in Honolulu, and they did so by establishing a series of practices so Draconian they eventually led to the collapse of the system.
Only brothel prostitution was allowed; independent whoring of any kind was strictly suppressed, and of course the madams had no objection because that meant all girls had to work for them (just as in modern Nevada). Every passenger ship which arrived in Honolulu was met by the police vice squad, and any unescorted woman was assumed to be a prostitute; she was fingerprinted, registered and given a copy of the “Ten Commandments” she was expected to obey:
She may not visit Waikiki Beach or any other beach except Kailua Beach [across the mountains from Honolulu].
She may not patronize any bars or better class cafes.
She may not own property or an automobile.
She may not have a steady “boyfriend” or be seen on the streets with any men.
She may not marry service personnel.
She may not attend dances or visit golf courses.
She may not ride in the front seat of a taxicab, or with a man in the back seat.
She may not wire money to the mainland without permission of the madam.
She may not telephone the mainland without permission of the madam.
She may not change from one house to another. She may not be out of the brothel after 10:30 at night.
The police enforced these rules by beatings and threatened eviction from the islands. Though working in Honolulu was lucrative ($30,000 or more per year at a time most women were lucky to make $2000), most girls could only handle it for about six months, and when they left the islands they were not permitted to return for at least a year.
Originally most brothels (or “boogie houses” as they were called locally) were in the Iwilei district, but they were later forced to relocate to Hotel Street and a few adjoining parts of Chinatown. They were a normal and accepted part of Hawaiian life; there was no stigma attached to men who patronized them, and most wives even accepted their husbands’ going there for the rational reasons we’ve discussed here many times. When Naval ships came in, the lines at the brothels literally stretched down the block, and contemporary accounts describe Honolulu housewives passing unconcernedly through the lines to reach the businesses beyond them. The going rate was $2.00 (a full day’s wages) for locals and $3.00 for servicemen; most businesses had two separate doors and waiting areas because, due to pervasive racist attitudes of the time, white sailors did not like to think they were being served by the same girls who attended to the Asian locals. During the Second World War, the demand from servicemen grew so large that most of the better brothels on Hotel Street simply stopped seeing local men altogether. To speed things along, a “bull pen” system was instituted: Hawaiian matrons guarded the doors, turning away any man who was drunk or looked like a troublemaker. Each then paid his fee and received a poker chip, then waited for an available room where he undressed and waited for the whore who was working in the next room; she would come in, collect her chip, inspect him for signs of venereal disease, quickly wash him and do her work. He had three minutes to achieve release, after which she said “aloha” and was off to the next room while he washed up and got dressed. Most brothels required girls to see at least 100 men a day and to work at least 20 days per month, but despite this enormous volume there were only about 166 cases of sexually transmitted disease per year in the entire prostitute population (a number some clueless historians have called “extremely high” when it in fact represents an infinitesimal percentage of the tremendous number of clients).
The “bull pen” system is said to have been the brainchild of Jean O’Hara, a gutsy Irish Catholic native of Chicago. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, many prostitutes fled back to the mainland and many others volunteered to nurse wounded men, lowering the available supply just as the demand increased; O’Hara and many of the other girls used the situation to leverage better working conditions for themselves. First they raised the price to $5.00, but Major Frank Steer, the Army officer in charge of vice under martial law, vetoed that and enforced the $3.00 price. They then began to flout the old rules, going out in public as they wished and enjoying their earnings for the first time. The police chief, William Gabrielson, was furious; how dare these dirty whores flout his regime and pretend to be real people! He complained to General Emmons, the military governor, who told him he didn’t care what the hookers did as long as they were happy, because happy whores meant happy troops. But Gabrielson couldn’t stand his little dictatorship being threatened, so he ordered his men to continue business as usual (and more brutally). In April, 1942 they evicted four prostitutes from a house in Waikiki, and the women complained to Captain Benson of the military police. Benson told them the civilian police didn’t run things any more, and they could do as they liked; when Gabrielson heard this he was livid and announced to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that he was officially turning control of vice over to the military. Emmons was of course forced by Washington to deny this, and officially returned control to Gabrielson while at the same time ordering the MPs to protect the prostitutes from Gabrielson’s uniformed hooligans.
O’Hara, realizing the tenuousness of the whores’ position, instigated a strike which endured for three weeks in July of 1942, demanding the basic human rights of American citizens. The prostitutes pointed out that their work was vital to the war effort, and they had already collectively purchased $132,000 in war bonds. The establishment was humiliated and the newspapers were ordered not to print a word about the strike, but obviously something had to be done so General Emmons, in a Solomonic maneuver, made a very calm and diplomatic appeal to Gabrielson to rescind the movement and residence restrictions, in return for which the military agreed to take over the weekly health and hygiene inspections. Gabrielson had little choice but to comply, and the whores were afterward free to move about the island as they pleased. O’Hara took advantage of this to carry out a real estate scam; she would buy a house in a genteel neighborhood and then let it be known what she did for a living, at which point she would be promptly bought out at a considerable profit by bluenosed neighbors.
Eventually, however, she pushed too hard; in 1944 she published a popular book entitled My Life As a Honolulu Prostitute (later republished as Honolulu Harlot). Since the Japanese were in retreat and the islands no longer in danger, martial law had been lifted and a new ruling elite decided that Hawaii would never win statehood if most Americans thought of them as backward “natives”; O’Hara’s book called unwelcome attention to an institution now regarded as an embarrassment, and a “concerned citizens” group published a map showing the addresses of every registered prostitute in Honolulu so as to provoke a witch-hunt. The police forcibly evicted prostitutes from their homes and returned them to the brothels, and territorial governor Ingram Stainback sent letters to all the high military officials informing them that prostitution was illegal and asking if they approved of the regulated brothel system. Obviously they could not admit that openly, and so stood by while the police closed the brothels on September 22nd, 1944 and all of the whores were either forcibly evicted from the islands or harassed until they either left or managed to evade police surveillance. Apparently, Chief Gabrielson soon missed the “good old days” of bullying hookers, because he eventually retired from his position to serve as a “consultant” to the Tokyo police department in catering to U.S. military demands for increased control of prostitutes.