The History of Sex Slavery Hysteria

Chris's picture

It's Election Day 2008 and I'm sitting in the Berkeley hills, looking across the Bay at San Francisco. My stomach is filled with butterflies edging, occasionally trying to edge itself into outright nausea at the thought of what's at stake today. It's not just the decision of Obama vs. McCain. That's deadly important, but here in California, there's a lot of very important stuff happening too. On the state level, they're fighting the battle over Proposition 8, which would undo the State Supreme Court's decision to make same-sex marriage legal, and Proposition 4, your standard parental-notification for abortion law. The airwaves have been filled with ads for and against, and the result of either is just impossible to forecast right now. And then, right across the Bay that's outside my window, there's Prop. K, a city ordinance that would decriminalize prostitution within the City and County of San Francisco.

Of course K has everyone in a fury, for and against, and we're seeing the same old hysteria surface. A vote for Prop K, according to its opponents, is a vote for slavery. The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, has been particularly vocal about this equation.

The idea that prostitution is innately connected to enslavement and trafficking has a long and shameful history. It's not something that Melissa Farley merely pulled out of her ass, no matter where the rest of her research may come from. Reason Magazine has a really interesting review of Sin in the Second City, a history of prostitution in Chicago by Karen Abbot, which sheds some light on how the myth of "white slavery" has developed over the past century, and how it's been used by both activists and the law to control the discussion of sex work as work:

The attempt to portray prostitutes as professionals never made much headway against the tendency to view them as victims. At the beginning of Sin in the Second City, Abbott describes an event in 1887 that forever changed the American public’s perception of sex workers. Authorities raided a Michigan lumber camp, finding nine women working as prostitutes. Eight accepted their prison sentences, but the ninth woman protested that she was tortured and forced into sex slavery. The lumberyard proprietors claimed the women were well aware of what they were hired to do; “the job description,” Abbott notes, “made no mention of cutting trees.” But the public was so moved by the woman’s story that she was pardoned and released from jail.

It was 20 years before another case of “white slavery” was reported in a Midwestern newspaper. But in the meantime, rumors of girls who were “trafficked” into sex slavery began to circulate. In 1899 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union missionary Charlton Edholm reported, “There is a slave trade in this country, and it is not black folks at this time, but little white girls —thirteen, fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen years of age—and they are snatched out of our arms, and from our Sabbath schools and from our Communion tables.” Perhaps they found themselves in a “false employment snare,” in which a young rural girl answered a city want ad and found herself locked in a brothel, her clothes held for ransom. Or maybe a gentleman from the big city, after plying her with drinks or drugs, deflowered her and sold her to a pimp.

Around the same time, anti-prostitution evangelical groups revised their platforms. Victorian society previously had reviled prostitutes as lost women who reduced men to animals. The rhetorical shift conveniently removed the prostitute’s responsibility for her actions. 

The review is well worth a read, especially today. Looking forward on Election Day is great, but it's even more ideal if you can be like the Roman god Janus, looking forward and back at the same time.