Before El Paso became known as the Sun City it was known as Sin City. The reason was because alcohol, gambling and prostitution filled the city’s coffers. But Sin City held an uglier truth that many in El Paso will refuse to accept or just simply ignore – that the debate over paid sex was underlined by White supremacy in America. Trying to rid America of prostitution also brought about the idea that protecting America required hardening the border against immigrants.
El Paso leaders have always struggled on how to best grow the city’s economy. Tourism has been part of the discussion, but its execution has largely failed mainly because El Paso has yet to implement a strategy to keep travelers from bypassing the city or attracting visitors to visit the city. Manufacturing was decimated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and El Paso has yet to take advantage of its border proximity to México. But Juárez, although largely ignored by the community at large, has been influencing El Paso’s economy since the city was created.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when the El Paso business community bucked the national trend because tourism for the city was more important than the morality of the country. In its heyday, the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and the politicians embraced tourist dollars brought in by the sex trade, going so far as to argue why should Juárez get the sex dollars at the expense of El Paso business owners.
Today, progressive politicians and movements are often associated with the left-liberal politics. Progressive politics in El Paso has been associated to social issues like the same-sex marriage debates over health insurance coverage and, at least as a vocal issue but not necessarily supportive of, immigration. But progressivism in American politics dates to the 1890’s as the result of industrialization and the need to purify society from corruption, waste and social ills. El Paso first bucked the national social agenda by embracing prostitution while the rest of the country tried to eradicate it. The reason was a mixture of economic need and an Hispanic majority trying to rebel against their Anglo minority overlords.
Unlike most of the nation, El Paso’s population has been predominantly Mexican American. The census for 1910 and 1920 showed that “white native born El Paso population accounted for less than 40% of the total” population for the city.  And yet, Anglos have ruled the city from the beginning and it can be argued, continue to do so today.
The Sin City
Prostitution is mostly a taboo subject in Texas and yet it has played an important part of the state’s history. El Paso has always had a unique approach to issues often different from its Texan brethren leading some to wonder if El Paso belongs in Texas at all. But arguing that El Paso belongs in New Mexico does not make sense either as El Pasoans tend to seek different paths, likely because Hispanics, most of the city, tend to yield their political power to the minority – the Anglos of the community.
However, although tending to yield political power, Latinos sometimes succeed in influencing city policy that today is best explained as “progressive” politics. Thus, while the country publicly opposed prostitution across the country, El Pasoans instead embraced it for economic reasons and as a form of opposition to Anglo influence in the community.
San Antonio was home to Hispanic prostitutes from the moment Texas gained independence. It wasn’t until the 1840s that Anglo prostitutes joined with the Latinos. By 1865, the prostitutes, both Anglo and Hispanic, were firmly intrenched in San Antonio. Across Texas, prostitution existed but was not as rampant across the state. 
When the railroads arrived at the city, transforming El Paso into a modern city, downtown El Paso was dominated by saloons catering to the railroads. However, El Paso was two cities, one of respectability and one of the nightlife that included alcohol, gambling and prostitution. It was the latter that paid the city’s bills. The “sin” part of the city, relegated to the background, is what funded city hall. 
El Paso’s prostitutes were found in the “Utah Street” area. Utah street is now south Mesa Street. Although pimps were part of the scene, in El Paso as in San Antonio it was the madams that primarily managed the prostitutes.  Arriving just as the railroads were to transform the city, five madams ruled the paid sex scene in El Paso. They were Alice Abbott, Etta Clark, Gypse Davenport, May Palmer and Tillie Howards. Many of them “were linked to some of El Paso’s more prominent businessmen.”  The sex shop owners were not discreetly hidden in backrooms or back alleys. Although El Paso outwardly pretended to be two cities, one respectable and the other of ill repute, the comingling of the two was out in the open.
On April 18, 1886, El Paso was home to a shootout between two madams over one of their prostitutes. The shooting of Alice Abbott by Etta Clark, both madams in El Paso, was over Bessie Colvin who no longer wanted to work for Abbott. As the altercation between the two madams escalated, Clark shot Abbott. Abbott survived and Clark was found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. Abbott had charged into Clark’s house searching for Colvin. 
Prostitution was such a present part of the social scene in El Paso that in 1886, “more than 150 prostitutes marched en masse to an El Paso city council meeting”. City officials tolerated the prostitutes because they funded city operations. The “hefty fines and rents prostitutes paid and the legions of male consumers they lured” into El Paso made it too lucrative to end prostitution in the city. 
The economic dependence of El Paso on gambling and prostitution was so great in 1890 that El Paso became known as the “Monte Carlo of the United States”. So dependent on the illicit commerce was the city that then-President Benjamin Harrison told city leaders during his visit in 1891 that “you cannot attract foreign capital,” unless city leaders better the city’s “reputation for social order”.  By 1916, prostitution in El Paso “mushroomed” as America mobilized at Ft. Bliss to hunt down Pancho Villa. 
While the rest of the country was targeting prostitution in their communities, in 1890, El Paso legalized prostitution by defining a vice district and mandating the registration and medical examination of prostitutes the following year.  El Paso leaders allowed prostitution in the city when other cities were eradicating it because they “concluded that morality took a back seat to the monetary benefits they and the city gained by allowing prostitution”. El Paso leaders “relied on the sex trade to encourage a vibrant tourism industry” and prostitution benefited “municipal coffers”. 
El Paso officials argued that it was “better to regulate and profit, than to suppress vice and send clientele and their money” to Juárez. The “powerful and influential El Paso Chamber of Commerce” was instrumental in keeping prostitution in El Paso. Ironically, in 1929, it was estimated that “98% of Juarez saloons and brothels” were owned by American entrepreneurs. 
Ft. Bliss was the catalyst to the lucrative vice economy while sometimes it threatened the city’s economy. As a federal agency, Ft. Bliss was often leveraged to bring El Paso in line with the morality drive in the rest of the nation. First in World War I, then in World War II and even during the Cold War, the threat of bypassing El Paso for military housing gave pause to the city business owners who weighed the cost of losing Ft. Bliss business or the business of sex work. Although sometimes city officials tried to appease the federal officials, invariable the easy money of looking the other way to vice gave way.
The involvement of El Paso businessowners in the sex trade was more than simply benefitting directly from it. Many business owners benefited indirectly from the tourism it generated to their establishments and the rents earned by the landlords. “Chamber of Commerce members owned red-light district real estate and promoted the city’s nightlife to attract visitors,”  much like rise of the Mexican drug cartels benefited many El Paso business owners in the 1980’s, a subject that we will explore in another article.
Readers should also note that El Paso’s red-light district at the time was pushed deeper into Segundo Barrio’s boundaries as city officials tried to curtail prostitution through zoning. 
Reformers Try To Eradicate Sin From City
Reformation activists across the nation were firm in trying to “protect” Americans from the sex workers. Driven by White supremacy, reformers used disease as the battle cry to the dangers that sex workers brought to Americans. El Paso leaders were under constant pressure to acquiescent to the reformers. Although they tried, invariable they failed because of the dollars sex created for the city.
El Paso city leaders attempted to implement social order by enacting an anti-gambling ordinance in 1890. Three years later, El Paso reformers were still trying to clean up the city, but nothing was being accomplished.  The city’s coffers were just too dependent on the vice. In 1909, the racetrack opened in Juárez giving the gamblers a better place to place bets. But the prostitutes remained. By 1913, the city was still trying to move the prostitutes out but to no affect. That year, the city identified 367 prostitutes, but other than adding them to a list, city officials did nothing. 
Texas anti-prostitution groups started to make inroads in Texas between 1911 and 1915, because progressive reformers across the nation were succeeding in their moral crusades. In Texas’ largest city, they mobilized against “segregated vice” arguing “about the perils of white slavery”.  Driving the morality reformers was not religious morality but the fear of an eroding white identity in the nation.
In El Paso, groups like the Committee of 10 led the anti-prostitution charge. Although successful in 27 U.S. cities and in Amarillo, Austin and Dallas, the anti-prostitution movement failed in El Paso. However, by 1917, the onset of World War I provided the anti-prostitution movement a powerful ally, the U.S. War Department. The military was concerned about protecting troop effectiveness by keeping them away from venereal disease infections. 
El Paso reformers saw an opportunity for social order with the threat on Ft. Bliss. They elected Tom Lea as the mayor in 1915. Lea is infamously known for fumigating Mexican immigrants at the border giving the Nazis the process of using bathhouses for the Final Solution that led to the murder of about 6 million Jews in World War II. Lea ended the tax on prostitutes weening the city’s dependence on them and forced the prostitutes into the Tenderloin District on Eighth and Nineth streets and on Mesa Street.  But it wasn’t enough. Rather than eradicating prostitution, it simply evolved.
So pervasive was the problem in El Paso in 1917, that the War Department mandated that unless the city cleared up prostitution there would be consequences for the community. El Paso leaders, although trying to eradicate their dependence on the prostitution economy, lost the construction of new military facilities in the city when then-Secretary Baker “refused to build the new army training center for which the city had been selected earlier”.  While other cities had successfully reduced prostitution in their communities, El Paso continued to fail at it.
As much as the reformers tried to eradicate prostitution, the industry itself adapted keeping prostitution part of the city’s economy. After World War I, the prostitution economy continued to evolve. Red-light districts and moving the work to hotels kept the sex vice operating. The telephone helped by allowing easier communication between the clients and the sexual providers. Thus the “call girl” was born.  Prostitution continued to evolve as pressure to eradicate it increased. Automobiles for mobility and arrangements with Taxi drivers became part of the process. Innovations like the telephone and enterprising prostitutes survived the closure of red-light districts. For example, in 1920, before credit cards became common, one El Paso prostitute, Jawboning Nelly, extended credit to her favorite customers, mostly soldiers at Ft. Bliss. She never had a problem collecting from her clients, according to reports.  Two things converged to make the sex business in El Paso more lucrative at this time. The Great Depression and the oil boom only made prostitution more lucrative for everyone involved, including the local governments. 
Also, across Texas, cities like Dallas were having problems keeping prostitution at bay. When Dallas officials realized that Fort Worth was syphoning tourists away from their city, they converted Dallas into an “open city” in 1936. As a result, El Paso police officials argued that the Dallas model of issuing health cards to sex workers and tolerance “was the only way to cope with prostitution”. 
El Paso, like other Texas border cities, found it was easier to control prostitution in their communities then to eradicate it because Cd. Juárez and other Mexican border cities allowed customers to bypass enforcement by going straight to Juárez instead of stopping in El Paso.  A factor underlining the reformers trying to eradicate prostitutes from the American landscape that is seldom discussed in the fear of “white slavery”.
Reformers Driven By Eugenic Racism
Anti-prostitution reformers rallied around the morality of the nation and on religion, but the underlining driving force was racism. Around Texas, the ethnic makeup of prostitutes was about half Anglo, “most of them U.S.-born” and the rest were divided into about 40% Black and 7% Hispanic. However, Hispanics in El Paso, Laredo and San Antonio were “more common”. 
White purity drove anti-prostitution reformers along the U.S.-México border. In response to shifts in economics and society brought about by industrialization in the 1890’s, “some influential Americans began to question whether women had failed in their primary duty to society, the preservation of the white Anglo-Saxon race that was threatened” by mixed-race families as immigrants flocked to America as new factories came online. 
Immigration laws in 1903 and 1907 made prostitution a crime for immigrants although prostitution had yet to be abolished across America by 1909. In San Diego, prostitution remained legal in red-light districts. Because of the proximity to the border, immigration officials were keeping track of prostitution in San Diego. Under immigration law at the time, immigrants who had been in the country less than three years who engaged in prostitution committed a crime. Those who had been in the country more than three years were immune from federal criminal prosecution. Immigration inspector J.C. Nardini surveilled San Diego prostitution to prevent immigrant prostitutes from crossing the border. Nardini “highlighted the growing attitudes against immigrant prostitutes…attitudes afforded by the fear of sexual contamination of the American body politic in particular to the contamination of white purity”. 
Interestingly what Nardini’s surveillance of prostitutes discovered was that the “majority of prostitutes in San Diego were American born women and those who were immigrants had been” in the country for more than three years. 
It should be noted that, “the surveillance of foreign prostitutes at the U.S.-México border signals an important shift in the nation-making process because it created an early version of border control and militarization.” 
The 1903 immigration law targeted immigrant prostitutes and the 1907 law broadened it by adding to prostitution immigrant women who were “perceived to be immoral and if suspected of prostitution” would be deported. What drove the targeting of immigrant prostitutes was the rising “social purist’s fears of miscegenation and white slavery”. Miscegenation is the breeding of people of different races.
As far back as 1886, miscegenation in El Paso has been a point of contention. An 1886 telegram, back then the letters to the newspaper, was sent from El Paso to The Mail, a Stockton California newspaper. The title of the telegram was “Encouraging Miscegenation” and the telegram was about the baptism of the son of Sam Hing, “said to be the richest Chinaman in America” and his wife, “a New Orleans lady”. The telegram sender added, “that a number of prominent people witnessed the ceremony”. 
Between 1903 and 1910 both countries, México and the United States, were attempting to control prostitution, but from different perspectives. America saw prostitution as “a social evil that needed to be abolished,” while México saw it “as a necessary evil that needed to be regulated.”  El Paso largely fell in the latter point of view.
From this arose what Grace Delgado, a researcher, has argued became “a space of gendered and sexual exclusion” at the border. “The emergence of sexual exclusion at the border highlights the convergence of social purity and nativist movements” in America, giving rise to advocating for closed borders. 
Like in México, prostitution in El Paso was generally accepted as a “necessary evil” that needed to be controlled. However, rising “social purity movements” in America gave rise to hardening the border to keep Americans from the “fear of white slavery”.  It is during this time that immigration law in America included health as a determining factor. Venereal disease was the public argument for the underlining driving factor of keeping Americans White. “Undesirables” now underlined immigration policy. In addition to economics, “undesirable” immigrants included those with health problems, including mental disease, and venereal disease.
In 1918, the Texas State Board of Health required that any person “who had diseases” had to “be quarantined and registered under the law.” The Texas law allowed any immigrant deemed to be of “questionable morality to be subjected for inspection for venereal disease”. Later in 1923, “drastic measures to limit contagion in the United States allowed medical inspectors to ‘de-contaminate’ incoming immigrants from Mexico by requiring them to take baths and disinfect their luggage”. 
Tom Lea infamously created delousing bath houses at the border, stripping Mexican men and women in public and forcefully spraying them with chemicals before they were allowed to enter El Paso. It is Lea’s bathhouses that inspired the Nazis to use bath houses to kill Jews in World War II.
Also in 1918, another movement led by El Paso women via community philanthropy was started. It was “Americanization of the ethnic Mexican population” by “converting” the mostly “Catholic population to Protestantism”. Female Methodist missionaries setup shop in the Chihuahuita part of Segundo Barrio “to foster Mexican assimilation and conversion to Protestantism”. 
The Houchan Settlement House in Segundo Barrio was one of several religious-driven philanthropy projects in 1913 that proposed that “Chihuahuita’s salvation” lay in “cleanliness” and in “godliness”. Mexicans, as usual, were to blame because in crossing the border, they were “bringing their own unspeakable filthy living conditions”. 
By the late 1970’s prostitution remained part of El Paso’s scene, although the city had long-ago dropped its dependence on the revenues it generated for the city coffers. By 1978, there were four types of prostitutes in El Paso. There were the young Mexican immigrants working out of San Jacinto Plaza, the drug addicts working in downtown and along the Ft. Bliss area, the “military hangers-on” who followed troops from base to base and the call girls, “usually Anglos who frequented the better-known bars and clubs”. 
However, instead of prostitution dropping in El Paso, by 1978, it was increasing fueled by the rising drug culture in America. El Paso officials seemed not interested in addressing prostitution. In 1978, the El Paso Police Department had a vice squad consisting of six officers, down from a dozen or more in previous years. In addition to prostitution, the vice squad also enforced liquor laws, further distracting them from prostitution. 
In 1987, the El Paso Police Department was complaining that El Pasoans, in general, were not supportive of the police efforts to curb obscenity in the city. A 1981 police crackdown arrested 33 women in six topless bars. The first topless dancer to be tried was acquitted by the jury. Several other dancers failed to attend court and the charges were later dropped. Charges of six other women were dismissed by the district attorney’s office and a judge directed an acquittal verdict in another dancer’s case. Prosecutors said that El Paso juries refused to convict cases of lewdness, saying that even with all the facts, that “when you have a retired colonel as a jury foreman and a nun on the same jury who refuse to convict a defendant,” shows that El Pasoans were not interested in having police wasting taxpayer money on such cases. 
Although it may tempt readers to believe that in the 1980’s most prostitutes in El Paso were from Juárez, arrest records show that only about one-third of the prostitutes arrested were from México. While police tried to curb sexual vice in the city limits, then-Sheriff Leo Samaniego said he couldn’t afford a vice-squad leaving the county open for “truck-stop prostitutes” who used citizen band (CB) radios to solicit clients from I10. 
Today, prostitution arrest profiles of “johns” and the prostitutes are reported in the local newspaper routinely as part of a public shaming strategy. “Targeting Johns” are community-led initiatives designed to end prostitution by shaming the customers publicly. The first neighborhood to implement this strategy was Knoxville, Tennessee in 1975. The first Texas city was El Paso in 1985. 
The business of sex is driven by the demand, the customers using the prostitute. Addressing prostitution, communities usually targeted the supplier instead of the user. Targeting the providers instead of the users only served to move the prostitutes to other places. “Anti-demand” tactics were started by community activists as early as the 1960s and 1970s, but it did not gain traction until the 1990s. 
Prostitution has also become an extension of human trafficking where prostitutes, mostly minors, are sex trafficked into El Paso, and other communities. In 2014, Charles Marquez was sentenced to life in prison for forcing victims into prostitution by bringing them into El Paso on false promises and putting them into El Paso motels between 2007 and 2012. Marquez was helped by Martha Jimenez of Juárez in the crime. Jimenez plead guilty in 2012 but fled before she could be sentenced. 
Contrary to what some believe are the users of sexual paid services as deviants or part of the criminal elements, studies have shown that “johns” are “unlike” most criminal offenders. Between 10% to 20% of American men have admitted to purchasing sex. In a San Francisco study, the men arrested for paying for sex were “well educated, employed, and married, and few had extensive criminal histories.” Other studies across the nation have shown similar results. 
Studies suggest that the business of sex is damaging to all involved and although some may argue it is a “victimless” crime, the fact remains that prostitution hurts the communities it operates in, whether tolerated or targeted by community leaders.  But the commercial sex industry cannot be defined by one demographic or type of ancillary criminality.
Commercial sex is segmented. There are the low-end, those who make the least amount of money, who are at the mercy of their pimps, abusive customers and drug addicted who have little control over their bodies and their money. On the other end of the spectrum are the high-end, or elite escort services, who have more control over their money, where they work and who they accept as clients. 
Thus, proponents of the “victimless” crime like to focus on the high-end sexual services whereas those opposed to prostitution focus on the low-end victims who have little to no control over their lives. Because of this, targeting prostitution requires strategies that do not focus on a segment or type of sex worker and their “johns”. Providers of sex generally come from vulnerable communities and is driven by economic disparity that allows them little option for other work.
As communities have increased anti-prostitution legislation, the business of prostitution continues to evolve. Human trafficking is a consequence but how much of the human trafficking is the result of prostitution is hard to understand because there is little data to use for analysis. Generally, researchers tend to believe that “a substantial portion of trafficking is for the purpose of commercial sex.” 
Regardless, of whether sex workers are independent, human trafficked or controlled by organized criminals targeting the providers of the sex only makes them more vulnerable. Targeting the users, i.e., the “johns” equally is likely to be more effective. It is important to note that selective targeting, for example “johns” in vulnerable communities instead of equally targeting the “johns” in the high-end of the spectrum does not resolve the problem of prostitution.
There are those who will argue that simply legalizing prostitution would solve the problem for the community. There are little studies into the impact of legalization and thus this argument cannot be evaluated at this time. Nonetheless, the monetary value of sex work remains significant enough that many community leaders simply ignore it, respond to heightened community demand for eradication of sex workers or unfairly target the sex workers or the “johns” that are most vulnerable thus doing nothing to end prostitution in the community.
El Paso leaders to this day use prostitution politically instead of trying to eliminate it from the community. To understand this, one needs to see what happened Naked Harem owners Phyllis Woodall and Jeanne Coutta.
The El Paso Times profiled Coutta and Woodall in 1990 with a puff piece about how the Naked Harem “needs more than anything else is an artistic director”. Brad Cooper, the El Paso Times columnist added that “good theater is the difference between just taking your clothes off and strip tease.”  When Coutta and Woodall opened their Cosmopolitan in July 1977, the El Paso Times profiled it as discotheque for people “who like to dance” to the “latest selection of disco music from New York City” and where the house drink, the Cosmopolitan Pyramid Power is “exotic”. The columnist added as an after thought that soon “topless dancers will be dancing in the game room from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” as if topless dancers were just another attraction for the club. 
Jump forward to 1999 when El Paso Police detectives acknowledged in 2009 that they “knew the club hired underage dancers”. Coutta and Woodall had been arrested in 2004.  According to KTSM who interviewed Diego Gomez, the club hosted “a lot of important people with lots of money”. Coutta was sentenced to 33 years in prison and Woodall was sentenced to 16 years. The Naked Harem sign was finally taken down by the county in 2021. 
The Naked Harem case demonstrates that vice remains acceptable to the community while it benefits well-connected people but when the politics changes, it suddenly becomes a community problem. There are many rumors as to why Coutta and Woodall were prosecuted, but the fact remains that the businesswomen were lauded and then prosecuted as political winds shifted.
In Conclusion: Immigration, Border Security And Lucrative Human Misery
Readers should note that human misery remains a lucrative money-making business for the local government, in particular undocumented immigrants jailed at the local jail. While elected officials like David Stout proclaim their support for immigration reform, he recently voted to keep a lucrative jail contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to jail immigrants in the local jail. The reason is simple, ending the contract means lost county jobs, in this case jailers.
Using federal dollars to fund jail guards today is the same as how El Paso in the 1920’s used vice fines to pay for police officers. It also “exposes the American hypocrisy that emerged in the 1920s as El Paso leaders called for their sister city, Juarez, to disband its vice district at the same time the Americans sanctioned a zone of tolerance for prostitution” in El Paso. 
At the national level, El Paso’s congresswoman, Veronica Escobar, goes on national television arguing for much-needed immigration reform and yet her husband has been deemed one of the worst immigration judges for asylum seekers.
Clearly, the human misery of immigration is too lucrative for El Paso’s politicians today just like prostitution was too lucrative to end when they were funding city operations.
In our next issue, we will further explore how sex workers were part of El Paso’s economic strategy and how El Paso’s economic strategies have evolved over the years.
- David C. Humphrey, “Prostitution in Texas: From the 1830s to the 1960s,” East Texas Historical Journal, Vol. 22, Issue 1, Article 8., 1995.
- Trish Long, “Sin City that was El Paso drew nightlife, red lights, madams,” El Paso Times, February 27, 2020.
- Bob Boze Bell, “Clash of the Madams,” Truewest Magazine, May 2018.
- Ken Flynn, “Madams flourished with city,” El Paso Herald-Post, June 26, 1978.
- Ken Flynn, “Prostitution: ‘No way to wipe it out’,” El Paso Herald-Post, June 27, 1978.
- “Man gets life term for Texas prostitution scam,” Victoria Advocate, September 5, 2014.
- Diana Washington, “Topless bars, porn shops make crime harder to fight,” El Paso Times, February 23, 1987.
- Michael Shively, Kristina Kliorys, Kristin Wheeler and Diana Hunt, “A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts, Final Report,” The National Institute of Justice, June 2012.
- Miguel Giron, “Prostitution at the Border Towns: Moral Reform and Abolition along the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1903-1920,” University of California, Santa Cruz, December 12, 2016.
- Nancy M. Battista, “The case of prostitution in El Paso Texas, 1910-1929,” The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 2019.
- J. A. Rawlings, “Chihuahuita Needs Thorough Cleaning Up,” El Paso Herald Post, October 3, 1913.
- Brad Cooper, “Big success measured in inches at The Naked Harem,” El Paso Times, October 5, 1990.
- Linda Barron, “Cosmopolitan’s Music Latest, Maybe Loudest,” El Paso Times, September 5, 1977.
- Adrianna M. Chavez, “Coutta convicted of running prostitution ring,” El Paso Times, December 11, 2009.
- Roxy Van Ruiten, “Notorious ‘Naked Harem’ sign removed 15 years after shut down,” KTSM, September 25, 2021.