St. Louis experiments with legal prostitution in 1870

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ST. LOUIS, MO  — In recent years St. Louis has had the dubious distinction of being one of the top cities is America for sexually transmitted diseases. But this is not just a recent phenomenon and the city once thought it had a solution.

“In St. Louis there were all kinds of experiments with city bathhouses, city parks and city hospitals of all kinds. This was an experiment with prostitution.” said Dr. Robert Archibald of the Missouri History Museum.

In 1870 the city of St. Louis passed a so called social evils ordinance which allowed prostitution so long as it was conducted in a brothel as opposed to the streets. The ordinance also created something else, the social evil hospital.

“It was a place where prostitutes could seek treatment and prevention of various kinds of venereal diseases.” said Dr. Robert Archibald

Considering its purpose, the social evil hospital was a rather lavish building. It was at the corner of Arsenal and Sublette, now a city park.

“It’s an interesting experiment, the idea that citizens in this city would say, well, the disease is worse than the affliction of prostitution so the answer here is to try to control the worst side effects of this by preventing disease and death due to sexually transmitted illness.” said Dr. Robert Archibald

As the fourth largest city in America at the time St. Louis was frequently experimenting with new ways to deal with old problems particularly related to health and safety. But the idea of a social evils hospital fell out of fashion almost as quickly as it was created. A year after it opened it was turned into a hospital simply for women.

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