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What Have I Learned Group

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SummaryThis paper compares contemporary discourses around ‘trafficking in women’ with turn of the century ‘white slavery’ discourses. These discourses function as cultural myths, constructing particular conceptions of the issue of migration for the sex industry. Discourses of ‘trafficking in women’ and ‘white slavery’ reflect the construction of state/gender relations; anxieties concerning female sexuality and women’s autonomy; and Western representations of the racial/cultural ‘other’. Policies based on these discourses serve to restrict women’s autonomy and choice of livelihood strategies. A new basis for policy, based on the inclusion of women’s work in the informal sector, including sex work, in existing labour and human rights mechanisms, offers the best hope of combating violence while ensuring the protection of the rights of female migrants.




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The campaign against ‘trafficking in women’ has gained increasing momentum world-wide, but in particular among feminists in Europe and the United States, in the last two decades. This current campaign is not the first time that the international community has become concerned with the fate of young women abroad. Modern concerns with prostitution and ‘trafficking in women’ have historical precedent in the anti white-slavery campaigns that occurred at the turn of the century. Feminist organisations played key roles in both past and present campaigns. While current concerns are focused on the exploitation of third world/non-western women by both non-western and western men, concerns then were with the abduction of European women for prostitution in South America, Africa or ‘the Orient’ by non-western men or other subalterns. Yet, though the geographical direction of the traffic has switched, much of the rhetoric accompanying the campaigns sounds remarkably similar. Then as now, the paradigmatic image is that of a young and naive innocent lured or deceived by evil traffickers into a life of sordid horror from which escape is nearly impossible.


The mythical nature of this paradigm of the ‘white slave’ has been demonstrated by historians. Similarly, recent research indicates that today’s stereotypical ‘trafficking victim’ bears as little resemblance to women migrating for work in the sex industry as did her historical counterpart, the ‘white slave’. The majority of ‘trafficking victims’ are aware that the jobs offered them are in the sex industry, but are lied to about the conditions they will work under. Yet policies to eradicate trafficking continue to be based on the notion of the ‘innocent’, unwilling victim, and often combine efforts designed to protect ‘innocent’ women with those designed to punish ‘bad’ women: i.e. prostitutes.


In this paper, I examine how narratives of ‘white slavery’ and ‘trafficking in women’ function as cultural myths, constructing particular conceptions of migration for the sex industry. The myths around ‘white slavery’ were grounded in the perceived need to regulate female sexuality under the guise of protecting women. They were indicative of deeper fears and uncertainties concerning national identity, women’s increasing desire for autonomy, foreigners, immigrants and colonial peoples. To a certain extent, these fears and anxieties are mirrored in contemporary accounts of trafficking in women. My intent is to lay the two sets of discourses, as it were next to each other, and compare them, to evaluate to what extent ‘trafficking in women’ can be seen as a retelling of the myth of ‘white slavery’ in a modern form.


Until recently, very little examination of the modern anti-trafficking movement from a discourse perspective has been done: that is, a critical examination of the ideology, organisation, and strategies of the anti-trafficking movement. 1 The ‘white slavery’ campaign, in contrast, has been the studied by feminist and non-feminist historians alike (Bristow 1977, 1982; Connelly 1980, Walkowitz 1980, Rosen 1982, Gibson 1986, Corbin 1990, Grittner 1990, Guy 1991, Fisher 1997, Haveman 1998).


In the first section, a brief history of the anti -white slavery movement is given, and the core elements of the ‘white slavery’ myth are set out. The re-emergence of these core elements in the ‘trafficking in women’ discourse are examined in section two. In the final section, an analysis of the deeper fears and anxieties about sexuality, the role of women, class and race underlying the myth is made.


It is difficult to define ‘white slavery’, as the term meant different things to different social actors, depending on their geographic and/or ideological location. The discourse on ‘white slavery’ was never monolithic, nor was it inherently consistent. For some reformers, ‘white slavery’ came to mean all prostitution, others saw ‘white slavery’ and prostitution as distinct but related phenomena (Malvery and Willis 1912). Others distinguished between movement within a country for prostitution (not white slavery) and international trade (white slavery) (Corbin 1990: 294). Nonetheless, it is possible to establish some elements in perceptions of white slavery that were common to almost all interpreters of the phenomenon (examined below). ‘White slavery’ came to mean the procurement, by force, deceit, or drugs, of a white woman or girl 2 against her will, for prostitution. 3


The extent of the ‘white slave panic’ in Europe and the United States has been extensively documented (Bristow 1977, 1982; Connelly 1980, Walkowitz 1980, Rosen 1982, Gibson 1986, Corbin 1990, Grittner 1990, Guy 1991, Fisher 1997, Haveman 1998). There were organisations world-wide devoted to its eradication; it received extensive coverage in the worlds media; was the subject of numerous novels, plays, and films; and led to a number of international conferences, new national laws and a series of international agreements. 4


In the light of this reaction, it may seem surprising to find that contemporary historians are nearly unanimous in seeing the actual number of cases of ‘white slavery’, as defined above, as very few (Walkowitz 1980, Bristow 1982, Rosen 1982 5, Corbin 1990, Guy 1991). Stories of ‘white slavery’, were in fact triggered by the actual increase in women, including prostitutes, migrating from Europe to find work (Guy 1991: 7). If the actual number of cases of ‘white slavery’ was very small, why did the issue become so prominent?


Grittner, in his analysis of the anti-white slavery campaign in America, introduces the idea of ‘white slavery’ as a cultural myth. According to Grittner, a myth does not simply imply something that is ‘false’, but is rather a collective belief that simplifies reality (1990: 7). Grittner explains his conception of myth as follows:


This view of ‘white slavery’ as cultural myth can go some way towards accounting for its persistence and power despite the fact that very few actual cases of ‘white slavery’ existed. After setting the historical context in which the ‘white slavery’ debates take place, I make use of Grittner’s idea of the mythical nature of white slavery to explore the construction of and impact of white slavery narratives in Europe and America.


The campaign against white slavery needs to be seen in the context of the European and American nineteenth century discourses on prostitution. Two competing views can be distinguished: that of the ‘regulationists’ and that of the ‘abolitionists’. ‘Regulation’ refers to the state system of licensed brothels, in which prostitutes were subjected to various forms of regulation, such as forced medical examinations and restrictions on mobility. The ideology behind ‘regulation’ was that of prostitution as a ‘necessary evil’. Pre-Victorian regulation of prostitution was based on the religious/moral notion of the prostitute as a ‘fallen woman’ (Guy 1991:13). In the Victorian age, new rationale was found for regulation in the ‘science of sexuality’ (Foucault cited in Walkowitz 1980: 40) in which the prostitute was constructed as a sexual deviant and spreader of disease (Walkowitz 1980: 40).


Almost as soon as women began to migrate in great numbers (see above), stories of ‘white slavery’ began to circulate (Guy 1992: 203). A number of highly-publicised ‘exposes’ of the traffic served to generate wide-spread public attention for the issue (Grittner 1990: 41). As Grittner remarks, social purity reformers ‘soon discovered the rhetorical power that “white slavery” had on their middle-class audience’ (Grittner 1990: 41). Butlerite feminists supported the social purist campaign against ‘white slavery’, as they believed that the system of licensed brothels abroad furthered the traffic in women (Walkowitz 1980, Gibson 1986). They also supported the social purists’ agenda of a single standard of chastity for both sexes and shared their concern with youthful sexuality (Bristow 1977, Walkowitz 1980). Eventually, the abolitionist campaign was eclipsed by the campaign for social purity, as the emotive issue of ‘white slavery’ succeeded in whipping up public concern to a fever pitch.


The repressive nature of the social purity campaign was recognised and condemned by some feminists of the time. Theresa Billington-Grieg published an article in the English Review in 1913 in which she argued that feminist anti-white slavery activists had ‘provided arms and ammunition for the enemy of women’s emancipation’ (p.446). Josephine Butler publicly condemned the repressive aspects of the social-purity movement, but many of her erstwhile followers joined the ranks of the social purists (Walkowitz 1980: 252). In other European countries and the United States as well, feminists initiated or became involved in the drive to abolish prostitution and ‘white slavery’. And, as in England, these campaigns were increasingly dominated by repressive moralists, as alliances were forged with religious and social purity organisations (Gibson 1986, Grittner 1990, Haveman 1998). 041b061a72


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