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Walking tour covers the taboo history of sex work in Minneapolis

The old Gayety Theatre is a touchstone in Minneapolis' rich sex work history.

The old Gayety Theatre is a touchstone in Minneapolis' rich sex work history. Cinema Treasures

Mary Robinson’s name splashed across the pages of the Minneapolis Chronicle. It was 1867. The infamous St. Paul madam had plans to open a bordello across the river. This “notorious prostitute,” the article read, was sounding the alarm.

“Our city has been so free from prostitution and the standard of morals so high, that there has been no need of reference to this evil,” it read. “The damning effect, which this monster will have on our hithertho uncontaminated people, is too dreadful to contemplate.”

The reporter needn’t have worried. Robinson never moved in. Besides, the so-called “social evil” of sex work was already thriving in the city. Minneapolis was growing fat on the Industrial Revolution. More than half the population of Minnesota was settling in the 15 counties along the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers, taking up work in sawmills and flour mills. Where people went, the brothels followed.

Today, there’s little evidence to show for it. Most of the old brothels and bordellos were torn down and replaced with more palatable fare by the ‘60s and '70s. What had been Minneapolis’ skid row became today’s Gateway District. The Orpheum’s old tradition of burlesque seldom appears in its homages to its own history.

Nonprofit Cheeky Kitty is trying to uncover the hidden story of Minneapolis’ sex workers and put it on display in a new walking tour: Erotic City. Kitty Clark and her co-founder, who prefers to go only by “Cheeky,” conceived the tour as a response to the recent passage of the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (SESTA) and “Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act” (FOSTA). The legislation was supposed to combat human trafficking by cracking down on selling sex work online, but consensual sex workers argue it makes their work less safe.

“It drives sex workers further underground,” Clark says.

On top of that, it reflects a history Minneapolis is “quick to forget”: what happens when we try to hide or deny the presence of sex work.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, fees collected from madams in its red light districts boosted the city's coffers – and even built a house for “fallen women” in need of shelter. In return, sex workers got relative safety. They were free to call the police if they were in danger, without fear of being arrested. Meanwhile, a thriving entertainment scene bloomed around the districts. Theaters sprung up and offered a variety of fare to the brothels’ regulars, from variety shows to revues to burlesque.

“The madams actually had quite a bit of power in shaping the city,” tour guide, historian, and burlesque dancer Beth Hartman says.

But sex eventually fell out of political favor, both because of religious qualms and rage against the hypocrisy of a city that would frown on sex work while using it to stuff its pockets. By 1910, the last red light district had been shut down.

What followed was, in many ways, a dark age for sex work: out of the brothels and into the streets, depending on pimps and johns for protection and negotiation. 

The tour’s purpose is twofold. The first is to remind participants of the role sex work played in how the city grew. It tours the city’s first red light districts, the old sites of erotic dance theaters and other venues of titillating entertainment, the dwindling vestiges of that history in storefronts like SexWorld and Choice Gentleman’s Club.

“A lot of walking tours are trying to suppress that part of our history,” Hartman says. Sex work is part of who we are—always has been. 

The second is to warn of the harm that can arise when we forget our own history, and to raise awareness of the potential dangers SESTA and FOSTA represent. Ninety percent of the proceeds from the tour go toward the Minneapolis Sex Workers Outreach Project, a group of sex workers advocating to decriminalize their profession and make it safer.

What the tour comes down to is that sex workers are just that—workers. And as such, they should not only be protected, but remembered—even celebrated.