Sex Work

Sex Slaves and the Surveillance State

Why 'human trafficking' is a dangerous term


Her name, like that of nearly all the victims, is unknown. Not older than a teenager, she has large, downturned eyes, long and wavy hair, and pale skin. She wears a demure white dress, suggesting that the life she lived before she found herself in this dungeon was one of innocence. She stares through the bars of her cage and, because she cannot save herself, prays for rescue. Behind her, a man wearing a bowler hat and a lascivious grin gazes upon his captive prey through the smoke of his cigar. He has paid to rape her and she is powerless to stop him. She is a "white slave."

This girl is a drawing. She existed only in an image that was part of a flood of claims made in the early 20th century, about legions of white American girls and women being held against their will and forced into prostitution. Thousands of newspaper articles, books, sermons, speeches, plays, and films depicted a vast underground economy of kidnappers and pimps holding godlike power over young female sex slaves. Historians now generally agree that those depictions were mostly or entirely fabrications. There is scant verifiable evidence of American women being kidnapped and physically forced into prostitution, or that such a girl in the picture ever existed.

This was no mere harmless mythmaking. The claims made by the movement against "white slavery" helped create, expand, and strengthen the police powers of an array of government agencies. Since the onset of the panic, those agencies have imprisoned and sterilized hundreds of thousands of women who worked as prostitutes, taken their children from them, forced them onto the streets and into dependent relationships with male criminals, and made their jobs among the most dangerous in the world.

Those same government agencies also prosecuted black, Jewish, Latino, and Asian men for simply having intimate relations with white women; tightened restrictions on immigration; established precedents for some of the worst government violations of privacy and civil liberties in American history; and formed the basis of the modern surveillance state.

The contemporary movement against "human trafficking," also described as "modern-day slavery," is strikingly similar to the crusade against white slavery a century ago, both in rhetoric and in implications for individual freedom and state power.

In 1907, the federal government launched its first concerted response to the white-slavery panic when the United States Immigration Commission-known as the Dillingham Commission after its chairman, Sen. William P. Dillingham of Vermont-launched a 12-city investigation into the "importation and harboring of women for immoral purposes." The commission turned up numerous foreign-born prostitutes voluntarily plying their trade, and they encountered some women whom investigators claimed were "practically forced" into prostitution by violence or threats of violence, but they found no one like the girl in the drawing.

Investigators also admitted that "to guard against the sensational beliefs that are becoming prevalent, it is best to repeat that the agents of this commission have not learned that all or even the majority of the alien women and girls practicing prostitution in the United States…were forced or deceived into the life." Nonetheless, the government responded to these findings with an immense crackdown on the freedoms of trade, movement, and sexuality both for American citizens and for those wishing to live in the United States.

Driven by the assumption that no mentally healthy woman would choose to sell sex except through overwhelming coercion, anti-white-slavery activists conflated imaginary sex slavery with all forms of prostitution and immoral sexuality. Though they never discovered a woman being brought against her will into the country to sell sex, immigration officials were instructed to stem this alleged tide by refusing entry not just to any woman they suspected of being a prostitute, but also to any woman who had borne children or had sexual relations outside of marriage.

Between 1907 and 1911 close to 80,000 women suspected of being prostitutes or of being sexually immoral were barred from the United States. The Immigration Bureau also commissioned agents to work undercover as spies in saloons, cafés, and railway stations where prostitutes were believed to work, to pose as census-takers in red-light districts, and to entrap prostitutes by soliciting them on the street.

Typically, immigrant women busted for prostitution were deported. According to the Texas State University historian Jessica R. Pliley, author of the forthcoming book Policing Sexuality, for the Immigration Bureau "the problem of white slavery was really a problem with foreign prostitution."

In 1909 the Immigration Bureau dispatched its lead white-slavery investigator, a man named Marcus Braun, to Europe to ascertain the causes of the influx of foreign prostitutes into America. Braun was astonished to find that in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Brussels, prostitutes were considered by authorities and the cultures at large to be ordinary wage laborers. He was even more astonished by the prostitutes themselves, who told him that they viewed the U.S. primarily as a lucrative market, since American morality constrained the supply of competitors, thus raising prices for their work. Braun concluded from his research that-contrary to the then-dominant white-slavery narrative-there was no international organization of kidnappers and pimps operating to "exploi[t] innocent and virtuous womanhood."

Nonetheless, in 1910 Congress responded to the continuing hysteria by passing the United States White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act (after its author, the Illinois congressman James Robert Mann), which made it a crime to transport women across state lines "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." Mann, like the principal supporters of the legislation, was a stalwart progressive Republican who championed regulation of the railroads, women's suffrage, and the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Many Democratic southern segregationists, galvanized by stories of dark-skinned men trading and procuring white women, joined with progressives in supporting the law.

In short order, 45 states passed white-slavery laws, which were used (along with laws against disorderly houses) to close down most of the country's red light districts, shuttering brothels in which prostitutes normally enjoyed the protection of madams, and placing sex workers on a circuit between workhouses, reformatories, jails, and the streets.

"Given these conditions," writes Ruth Rosen in The Lost Sisterhood (1983), the seminal history of American sex work, "it is not surprising that pimps began dominating the practice of prostitution." With its legal banishment, sex work was transferred from female ownership to male power. Though they certainly were sometimes exploited in brothels, "madams and prostitutes had wielded considerable power in their relations with customers," Rosen writes. "Now prostitutes became the easy targets of both pimps and organized crime. In both cases, the physical violence faced by prostitutes rapidly increased."

Among the government agencies empowered by the white-slavery hysteria was the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), which was created in 1908 in part to investigate the importation and inter-state transportation of prostitutes. With the expanded mandate of the Mann Act, the Bureau grew rapidly, from some 60 agents to more than 350, opening up a White Slave Division and operating in every major city in the country within just five years.

During this period, white-slavery cases constituted close to a third of the Bureau's work. By the time it was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, the agency had investigated tens of thousands of Americans for alleged violation of the Mann Act. Pliley has found that a sizable portion of those cases involved not commercial vice but relations between older men and girls, adultery, promiscuous teenage girls, and interracial couples.

"The anti-white slavery movement formed an important strand of Progressive Era activism," Pliley writes, "that sought to purify the bedroom in the same way that activists sought to clean up politics, the marketplace, and labor relations." Specifically, the BOI's investigation of cases of sexual immorality "brought average Americans of all class backgrounds under Bureau surveillance."

The most famous Mann Act case was the prosecution of the black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, whose brazen relationships with white women drew the wrath of BOI agents and the Illinois attorney general. Johnson was found guilty of transporting a prostitute, with whom he had been having an ongoing affair, across state lines, and he was sentenced to a year in jail with a $1,000 fine.

Pliley argues that the modern FBI was built upon the work of its White Slave Division, which "transformed the BOI into a truly national agency." Enforcing the Mann Act "justified the bureau's appeals to Congress for more funds and established its authority in the public culture." Most importantly, the white slave investigations "established a more aggressive model for federal law enforcement than previously existed-both seeking to prevent law breaking and investigating ordinary citizens, thereby setting important precedents" for what became the FBI.

When J. Edgar Hoover assumed the directorship of the BOI in 1924, he redoubled the Bureau's efforts to police "interstate immorality" beyond commercial vice. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the Bureau launched tens of thousands of investigations and secured more than 7,000 convictions for cases involving bigamy, adultery, "previously chaste, or very young women or girls," or relations between white women and non-white men. Such cases constituted the largest part of the Bureau's work during this period. As Pliley puts it, "the growth of the twentieth-century American state…came in no small part through its policing of women's bodies."

The white-slavery hysteria also spawned one of the ghastliest uses of state power in U.S. history. In several states, a conviction for "white slavery" automatically made a woman eligible for sterilization. Between 1907 and 1950, some 40,000 women were forcibly sterilized, most for prostitution or sexual immorality.

After World War II both the term "white slavery" and the policing of immoral sexuality became disreputable, as prosecutions for violations of the Mann Act virtually ceased. But a new cause emerged in the early 2000s that bore a striking resemblance to the scare of the early 1900s. Having been mentioned only sporadically through the 1990s, "human trafficking" exploded in news reports and scholarly articles at the beginning of the George W. Bush era.

A Google Scholar search shows only 50 results for the term in 1998 and 71 in 1999, but 161 results in 2000, 293 in 2001, 496 in 2002, 758 in 2003, and 1,100 in 2004. The number continued to grow to roughly 6,000 in each of the last three years. The movement against human trafficking, or "modern-day slavery," is now a global phenomenon that far surpasses the scope of the anti-white slavery cause.

Twenty-seven million people, we are told by the United Nations, scores of NGOs, and the U.S. State Department, are being held in bondage around the globe. Though there is general scholarly consensus that most people who are coerced to migrate and work are agricultural and domestic laborers, the lion's share of attention in the anti-human-trafficking campaign focuses on sex workers.

As with white slavery, there is no reason to believe that the actual number of slaves in the world is anywhere near its claimed number. The origin of that figure has been traced by a number of scholars and journalists, notably Laura Agustan, Elizabeth Bernstein, Maggie McNeill, and Ronald Weitzer, to the work of a single man, Kevin Bales, the founder of the Free the Slaves lobby group, who arrived at the figure through estimates, guesses, and an expansive definition of "slavery."

In another parallel to a century ago, several scholars have identified a confluence of human-trafficking discourse with calls for restrictions on immigration. The new panic has also given rise to new agencies within municipal and state governments whose charge to prosecute "traffickers" has resulted in the prosecution of greater numbers of women voluntarily selling sex for money. In Florida, the state legislature is considering a bill that would allow involuntary psychiatric hospitalization of sex-trafficking "victims."

In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act created within the State Department an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which promotes the figure of 27 million "slaves" on its website and in its "targeted foreign assistance and public engagement on trafficking in persons." Some of that foreign assistance has gone to programs in Asia in which NGOs and local governments "rehabilitate" arrested sex workers by forcing them into factory work.

The history of America's first sex panic should give us pause before we latch onto a new cause whose benefits are likely to be minimal at best but will almost certainly put more women in jail and more cops in our lives.

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  1. I never got how this “white slavery” jazz was such an effective issue for the statists. They don’t seem to do that with very many other things, like welfare. It certainly was effective, in the worst of ways, of course.

    1. It has a rich tradition in America. Cotton Mather used to use captivity narratives in his sermons in the late 17th, early 18th century in the colonies.

      1. Yes, I am aware of much of that. I am just baffled as to how it resonated with enough people to make such a profound and bad difference.

        1. Founder effect. Given the make up of many of the early settlers in America being uptight about sex is something that got woven into the fabric of our national character. Moral panics in general seem to get a lot more play here than other nations that I have visited and lived in. (Not to say they are exclusive to us, just more prevalent.) Think of it as the “Moderate Muslim” issue of our country. Even if an individual could not care less about the moral panic of the day there is a very motivated and not too small “moral” demographic that will do it’s best to punish those that do not respond to the outrage of the day.

  2. Driven by the assumption that no mentally healthy woman would choose to sellhave sex except through overwhelming coercion,

    Hmm.. change one word and it reads like a feminist.

    1. And it’s no surprise that modern Feministas have thrown their political power into the New scare. An unkind person (raises hand) might suggest that they resent the competition that prostitutes represent. Weatern Intellectual Liberal women are so ostentatiously unpleasant to men that they must at least subconciously fear that if men can get sex elsewhere, they mostly will.

      1. might suggest that they resent the competition that prostitutes represent

        I think they resent the perceived loss of power of teh vagina to hold out over men to get their way. Sadly for the US the places I’ve lived where prostitution was legal it was a fuckton easier to date and talk with women in general because both sides knew that just sex could be handled with a few bucks and a train ride. Not to say there still weren’t dicks and cunts that manipulated people for their own ends, but it was definitely muted compared to here.

        1. I’ve had a few experiences trying to talk to women just to be friendly, and have them say “I’m not sleeping with you.”

          One was sort of a friend so I replied “Yeah I’m not that desperate.”

          There seems to be this thinking among women that if a guy is talking to you he wants to have sex. It’s only if you’re hot and have big tits.

        2. Spot on … for those of us who travel outside the U.S., we know this truth. American men have become the real sex slaves to the all powerful American Vagina. The idea that American society views sex as a luxury reserved for those only in legally approved monogamous relationships is unnatural and ludicrous.

      2. There is a line in the S.E. Hinton vampire novel where the main character explains that he doesn’t hire prostitutes for sex, he hires them to leave him alone afterwards.

        1. Charlie Sheen said something similar.

          1. Sheen said it in court while facing a solicitation charge, making it doubly awesome.

            1. In front of the judge he had just humiliated at the banquet…

  3. Thaddeus Russell looks back on the harmful mythmaking about “white slavery” in the Progressive Era. It helped create, expand, and strengthen the police powers of an array of government agencies

    This could be said about so many things. REEFER MADNESS

    1. That was another aspect of the white slavery scare too, along with opium dens.

  4. When I read articles (or actually the first paragraph of the articles) on human trafficking I am usually dismayed at the imagery and the description. . . . . seems designed to titillate and arouse.

    I live in an area that is going to host a superbowl and there is much talk about how to protect the tens of thousands of sex slaves that will be imported for the event! I feel moderate guilt when I yawn.

    1. Don’t. That particular load of drek has been peddled at the last ten or so Superbowls, and there is zero evidence for it.

  5. Driven by the assumption that no mentally healthy woman would choose to sell sex except through overwhelming coercion,

    An assumption that refuses to die, no matter how many times it is killed. Saying that no woman would ever voluntarily sell sex is akin to saying no sane person would ever oppose organized labor. It strips opponents and inconvenient outliers of capacity and moral agency in a single, deft stroke.

  6. Do I read the sentiment correctly? Prostitution made illegal. Women hurt most.

    Under that logic lets allow pedophilia. It’s the best way to protect our children. Let’s make rape legal. It’s the best way to protect our girls from getting killed when someone assaults them. Same thing with theft. Let’s make stealing legal so the robbers won’t be as inclined to kill any witnesses.

    Maybe we’ve got this whole legal/illegal thing wrong. Just let everyone do whatever they want and close down all the prisons and courtrooms. It’s the best way to protect our society.

    1. Sounds more like YOUR logic is flawed. Those examples you cited all involve assaults on liberty and property. Prostitution, in the purest form, doesn’t involve any coercion or slavery… it’s a voluntary exchange of money for sexual services rendered. These busybodies need to be going after the pimps and the thugs instead of those women just trying to make money.

      1. It is my understanding that Mexico outlaws pimping, but not prostitution. In practice, pimping continues unabated.


      2. Your average street prostitute doesn’t actually make any money. It’s taken from them by the pimps and thugs you mentioned. The Game (as the pimps call it) is rigged from the start to end with a rich pimp and a dead girl.

    2. The point, which you seem bent on ignoring, is that prostitutes are for the most part no more ‘coerced’ than burger-flippers … and are much better paid. Is prostitution a good cereer choice? No. Neither is being a burger-jockey. The hazards of prostitution are all made worse, if not created entirely, by making it illegal.

  7. The only rings of sex slaves, to include that of children, that I know of have been created by and managed by governments.

  8. I wonder if the revival of interest in “sex slaves” is related to something I read maybe 40 ago: that the US is shifting from a patriarchal society to a matriarchal one.

    The list I saw, which I’ve never been able to find again despite good Google-Fu, was a list of virtues and taboos. Patriarchal virtues like (IIRC) honor and chastity were on the decline, while matriarchal virtues (think Age of Aquarius) were on the rise. The one set that didn’t match was sexual fears: fear of homosexuality was declining, but fear of incest/child abuse (the corresponding matriarchal fear) was not rising. Of course, since I saw that list, we’ve had a huge spike in concern about child abuse.

    So it seems to me that these worries about sex slaves aren’t just a feminist and/or progressive concern, but seem to fit here. Sometimes the sex slaves are said to be minors, but even if they are adults, they seem to fit into the same “exploited and helpless” category as children, and thus fit on the matriarchal side of things.

    (P.S.: If anyone can find a similar list of patriarchal/matriarchal characteristics, please post a link.)

  9. Given that the average prostitute starts turning tricks between the ages of 12 and 14, there is a small minority of prostitutes that entered into the profession voluntarily. Most of these girls are runaways or victims of prior sexual abuse that are recruited by pimps and conditioned to live within the rules of “The Game” (the name for prostitution/pimping). Once the girls are conditioned, they don’t ever really see that they have any other choice than to keep doing what they’re doing. That’s about as “voluntary” as it gets.

    1. There is actually very scant evidence to support the idea that most prostitutes start that young. Like the hogwash about spouse abouse peaking on Superbowl Sunday, it is a piece of outright claptrap that has been repeated so often that it is widely believed. This despite the fact that it should mean that there were hoards of underage prostitutes for Law Enforcement to ‘rescue’, and somehow they don’t get found.

    2. Given that average prostitute makes upwards of $1 million a year…

      What? I thought we were making statistics up at random.

      You realize, I hope, that if per impossible the average prostitute enters the profession at 13, for every woman who enters at 21, another must enter at 5.

    3. 12-14 is the average age at which an currently underaged prostitute had sex (usually non-commercial) for the first time. It excludes everyone who entered the profession at 18 or older, and isn’t even the age at which they started. A huge problem with counting underaged workers only, even if that WAS the age of starting the job and not having sex by itself, is that the data is inherently skewed towards the lower ages within that group. Someone who begins at 12 has nearly six years to be caught and counted; someone who is 17 has one (or less).

      Assume everyone is midway between birthdays. A girl who starts at 17 years and 6 months old will only enter the survey if it’s taken within the 6-month window between her start date and her 18th birthday. Someone 16 years and 6 months has 18 months, so each 16-year-old is 3 times more likely than the 17 group to be counted. An individual at 15 years 6 months is FIVE times more likely to be counted; she has a 30-month window. Etc. So the number of underaged prostitutes who begin at 17 is artificially low, and the much smaller number who begin at 12-14 is artificially high.

      If 13 is the AVERAGE, then there have to be massive numbers of elementary schoolers in the mix to balance the huge group of people who begin in their 20s and 30s. And that’s obviously nonsense.

  10. books, sermons, speeches, plays, and films depicted

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