, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 23-50

Loose women or lost women? The re-emergence of the myth of white slavery in contemporary discourses of trafficking in women

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This article compares current concerns about “trafficking in women” with turn of the century discourses about “white slavery.” It traces the emergence of narratives on “white slavery” and their re-emergence in the moral panics and boundary crises of contemporary discourses on “trafficking in women.” Drawing on historical analysis and contemporary representations of sex worker migration, the paper argues that the narratives of innocent, virginal victims purveyed in the “trafficking in women” discourse are a modern version of the myth of “white slavery.” These narratives, the article argues, reflect persisting anxieties about female sexuality and women's autonomy. Racialised representations of the migrant “Other” as helpless, child-like, victims strips sex workers of their agency. The article argues that while the myth of “trafficking in women”/”white slavery” is ostensibly about protecting women, the underlying moral concern is with the control of “loose women.” Through the denial of migrant sex workers' agency, these discourses serve to reinforce notions of female dependence and purity that serve to further marginalise sex workers and undermine their human rights.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Studies Association Convention, Washington D.C., February 16–20, 1999, and is available on-line at www.walnet.org/NSWP.