During the Great White Slavery Scare of 1907–1914, the U.S. public devoured a flood of speeches, pamphlets, magazine articles, plays, novels, books, and films about the so-called white slave traffic. These sensational materials, which included the first full-length feature film, spread the alarming message that a secret vice syndicate was reaping huge profits through forced prostitution.
Sixty thousand innocent women a year, it was said, were held as sex slaves by means of force, trickery, seduction, drugging, debt peonage, social shame, and venereal disease. The belief in white slavery was widespread: cities formed investigative commissions and Congress passed laws (notably the Mann Act of 1910).
Historians doubt that white slavery existed, yet the campaign to abolish it was arguably one of the most important moral crusades of the Progressive Era. The scare waned when evidence repeatedly failed to emerge and World War I diverted attention to other threats, but remnants of white slavery lore have survived the century.
The image of the prostitute as an innocent white slave began in Europe, where by the 1880s the alarm was raised that white, European women who ventured abroad—sometimes to work as prostitutes—were being captured for sexual exploitation by colonial subjects. In the United States, similarly, white slavery fears took hold in reaction to stepped-up immigration and women’s expanding opportunities and increasing mobility.
The term “white slavery” implies that the victims are racially distinct; and indeed, the earliest U.S. white slavery fears expressed a racist, nativist fear of foreign infiltration, particularly by Jews and southern Europeans, and the first white slavery laws were immigration controls.
But the scare reached its peak when a U.S. version of white slavery evolved. Drawing on the national shame and horror over black chattel slavery, white slavery writings—which were clearly intended for a white consumer—exploited the term’s implication that the enslavement of whites is especially evil.
Using proto-abolitionist rhetoric to call for the abolition of this heinous, “blacker” form of slavery, white slavery writers suggested that to be roused to moral indignation on the part of these poor women—who might, after all, be one’s “own” sister or daughter—was tantamount to joining an abolitionist crusade.
U.S. white slavery writing also incorporated the central reformist impulse of the Progressive Era: to save democracy from erosion by big business. Starting in 1907, when McClure’s magazine published a serial exposé of the vice business in Chicago, the U.S. public got a complex version of white slavery in which the traffickers included harmless-looking U.S. citizens and the crime syndicate was a nationwide industry working hand in hand with foreign traffickers and corrupt officials.
The white slavery business, with its network of related enterprises—liquor and drugs, abortionists, procurers, beauticians, government infiltrators—was a sinister reflection of the vertically integrated corporations and monopolies, the trusts and syndicates, that were being exposed and broken up by Progressive Era reform efforts.
Other major cities published similar pieces on bigcity vice and the growing public outcry provoked the Senate to extend government’s power to bar and deport aliens suspected of trafficking, while the 1910 Mann Act (aka the White Slave Traffic Act) made it a felony to “aid, entice or force a woman to cross state lines for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Aside from these laws and some stepped-up brothel-raiding, the socalled Great War on White Slavery involved very little in the way of actual reform. The scare probably brought increased financial and moral support to social welfare work among working-class women and prostitutes: Jane Addams, for example, used white slavery rhetoric to draw attention to the struggles and worthiness of the women she served.
But for the most part, the scare was a textual and representational phenomenon made possible by the boom in urban populations consuming popular media and fueled by competition for that market as much as by the generally reformist climate of the time.
The White Slavery Genre
The set piece of white slavery collections was the white slave narrative, which drew on the conventions of melodrama to portray a sunny, innocent girlhood brutally severed by the evil traffickers. The heroic exploits of lawmen were also featured; these tales of investigation, rescue, and punishment, which often incorporated criminals’ sensational confessions, are related to the detective story and to the earlier “mysteries and miseries of the city” genre, which offered shocking glimpses of the exotic degradations of the urban poor.
In lawmens’ narratives, undercover heroes adopted elaborate concealments and disguises, penetrating the secret criminal enterprise by means of an equally conspiratorial law enforcement network.
The great popularity of white slavery materials was clearly due to their titillating entertainment value. But at the same time, their content—particularly their disturbing depictions of a ubiquitous conspiracy—reflected and grappled with unsettling social changes.
Prostitution had boomed as the cities grew, and criminalization of the sex trade had created vice districts and driven prostitutes onto the streets, forcing residents to wonder where all these young, white prostitutes came from, and where they ended up. And where were the increasing numbers of daughters and sisters who were leaving towns and families for big city life, never to be heard from again?
Answering these unsettling questions, the white slavery conspiracy theory gave assurances that prostitution was never freely entered into by anyone resembling a middle-class white woman and that prostitutes never reemerged into mainstream society (the white slave nearly always ends up dead).
The conspiracy theory foreclosed on the perceived threat to family life posed by a booming market economy that offered women increased independence by depicting women as doomed without the protective agency of the family.
Portrayals of secret white slavery syndicates transposed anxiety about big business into a melodrama with clear moral demarcations. Progressive Era campaigns to regulate business and break up trusts and monopolies were often set in motion by exposés uncovering the secret machinations and tyrannical reach of corporate barons like Rockefeller.
White slavery conspiracy depictions, similarly, portrayed a consolidation of power in the hands of coercive economic agents, with resulting corrosion of democratic institutions, families, and even individual self-determination. In white slavery materials, however, readers were given a sense of empowerment against such vast forces.
Enabled to see through the veil of secrecy and to learn how to protect women, and privileged to vicariously take part in brothel raids, the consumers of white slavery materials could experience themselves as moral agents with a clear position and purpose.
The scare peaked during a period of significant demographic shifts when urban growth, spurred by booming industry and commerce, coincided with the effects of vastly increased immigration. Geographical, national, ethnic, racial, and social boundaries were in flux.
White slavery writings reflected the fear of corrupting alien presences whose foreign ways—not least their foreign languages—made them seem sinister and mysterious. Weakened social boundaries were reinstated in white slavery writings’ demarcation between “us” and “them,” while cultural integrity was boiled down to a contest over woman as the repository of cultural stability and familial and social identity.
Conspiratorial Sex Trafficking since 1980
In recent decades, sex trafficking media stories and reform campaigns have reemerged. That this contemporary fear over international “trafficking in persons” coincides with stepped-up globalization lends additional plausibility to the hypothesis that sex slavery conspiracy theories can reflect anxieties caused by weakened geographic and demographic boundaries.
A growing number of international and domestic organizations, campaigns, and legislative reforms seek to uncover and punish those who use deception and force to coerce women into sex work. The Progressive Era fear of corrupting foreign infiltration is echoed in depictions of the foreign traffickers as gangs linked up with crooked foreign governments.
The U.S. media is giving increasing coverage to tell-all exposés and accounts of brothel raids, which sometimes closely resemble Progressive Era materials—except that the imported female “sex slaves” are usually not white, but Asian or Latin American women presented as vulnerable and helpless (i.e., innocent) due to their poverty.
In media stories and in reports generated by reform organizations, prostitution is foregrounded over other kinds of labor exploitation, and women migrants are rarely acknowledged to be knowingly entering prostitution.