A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was there really such a thing as "white slavery"?

January 15, 1999

Dear Cecil:

I've always wondered about stories of Western women being kidnapped and sold to sheikhs in the Mideast, a practice that supposedly ended sometime in the last century. It stretches credulity to believe that a young woman from, say, England or France could be snatched off a boat or a train, brought to the gulf region, and sold to a harem, never to be heard from again. If this happened so often to so many women, wouldn't one be able to escape at one time or another and "blow the whistle" on the whole operation, sparking an international outcry?

Dear Mark:

I asked Little Ed to see what he could find in the card file under "white slavery." He came up with "Blond Sluts Ready for Whipping." Ed, I said, the fact that it appeared on a Web page asking for your credit card number argues strongly against its having authentic 19th-century origins. Not that sex slaves are strictly a 19th-century phenomenon. For that matter, Mark, I don't know where you got the idea that the kidnap victims all wound up in some sultan's seraglio. Maybe we'd better take the whole thing from the top.

Panic over the "traffic in women," commonly known as white slavery, has surfaced periodically in the West, most notably in England in the 1880s and again in the United States in the decade prior to World War I. In the classic telling of the tale, young girls were abducted or cajoled from their homes and spirited away to some foreign shore, where they were sold to brothels or wealthy rakes. The foreign shore wasn't necessarily all that far away. In Victorian England the main locus of iniquity wasn't the Middle East but France.

White slavery was a natural target for defenders of public morality and crusading journalists. In 1885 the famous English muckraker William Stead published a series of sensational articles in the Pall Mall Gazette revealing that he'd purchased five virgins, one of whom was only 13. The articles described a sordid sexual underworld in which rich men, with the connivance of the police and public officials, brazenly trafficked in children to satisfy their unspeakable lusts. The ensuing outcry led to the passage of antislavery legislation in parliament.

A similar uproar arose in the United States in 1910, when the U.S. attorney in Chicago proclaimed that an international crime ring was abducting young girls in Europe and forcing them to work in Chicago brothels. This led Illinois congressman James Mann to introduce what became known as the White Slave Traffic Act, or Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of minors across state lines for criminal purposes. Whatever impact the Mann Act may have had on white slavery (not much, one suspects), its most common use was to prosecute men for having sex with underage women.

How prevalent was (and is) sex slavery really? I'd hesitate to dismiss the whole thing as a myth, as some commentators have done. There are plenty of child prostitutes in the world, and it's safe to say few of them got into the business willingly. Kidnapping, as opposed to luring under false pretenses, is probably uncommon, but it happens even today. In 1997 two men in Oregon were charged with white slavery for transporting two girls, ages 13 and 14, from Canada and forcing them to have sex with different men. There are also numerous reports of sex slavery in Asia.

On the other hand, the most lurid claims, e.g., that the sex-slave trade was a well-organized criminal enterprise with tentacles in just about every major city, were almost certainly exaggerated. Investigators of alleged abductions in Victorian England often found that the victims had gone voluntarily. The white slavery paranoia in English-speaking countries created a climate of prudery that led to campaigns against music halls, racy French novels, and the like, and eventually to the criminalizing of prostitution, that most ancient of professions. One doesn't want to wink at kidnapping, child prostitution, and so on. But as Bill Clinton can tell you, just because something's immoral doesn't mean it should be a crime.

More on slavery

I'm writing on the subject of your column, "Was there really such a thing as 'white slavery?'" While the threat of being sold into "white slavery" may not have been a big deal in the 19th century for young European women and girls, the problem of human trafficking is an unfortunate 20th century reality for women and children in the developing world.

This Congressional Research Service Report (fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/9107.pdf) describes human trafficking for prostitution and forced labor as "… one of the fastest growing areas of international criminal activity and one that is of increasing concern to the U.S. Administration, Congress, and the international community. The overwhelming majority of those trafficked are women and children. An estimated 1 to 2 million people are trafficked each year worldwide; 50,000 to the United States. Trafficking is now considered the third largest source of profits for organized crime, behind only drugs and guns, generating billions of dollars annually." The report cites the following statistics:

Trafficking affects virtually [every] country in the world. The largest number of victims come from Asia, with over 225,000 victims each year from Southeast Asia and over 150,000 from South Asia. The former Soviet Union is now believed to be the largest new source of trafficking for prostitution and the sex industry, with over 100,000 trafficked each year from that region. An additional 75,000 or more are trafficked from Eastern Europe. Over 100,000 come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and over 50,000 victims are from Africa. Most of the victims are sent to Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe and North America.

The U.S. Department of Justice has set up a special Worker Exploitation Task Force. They maintain a complaint line at 1-888-428-7581 and their website is found at www.justice.gov/crt/crim/tpwetf.php. The State Department provides additional information at secretary.state.gov/www/picw/trafficking/home.htm.

Mark Cooper, the original questioner, asked "If this happened so often to so many women, wouldn't one be able to escape at one time or another and 'blow the whistle' on the whole operation, sparking an international outcry?" This is of course how many present-day trafficking cases came to light. However, the women and children in question are stripped of their passports, do not speak the language, are imprisoned in tightly controlled and guarded work environments, and live with the fear of beatings or death if they try to escape. Many are from extremely rural environments, do not have basic literacy skills in any language, have no money, and fear their strange new environment more than they fear their captors. Often local authorities are in the pockets of the traffickers — if they did manage to escape, whom could they tell? Not everyone has Diane Sawyer's phone number in their Rolodex.

I recognize that the column was mostly focused on the 19th century and perhaps written before so much international attention and research was focused on the problem of human trafficking, but I thought that you might appreciate some updated information.

Cecil replies:

I knew about slavery in Asia but frankly wasn't aware of how widespread the problem was. Thanks for bringing us up to date.

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