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

Gender Issues. 2000 Winter;18(1):23-50. doi: 10.1007/s12147-999-0021-9.


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 reemergence 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. Racialized representations of the migrant "Other" as helpless, child-like, victims strips sex workers of their agency. This 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 marginalize sex workers and undermine their human rights.

MeSH terms

  • Behavior
  • Crime
  • Demography
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic*
  • Population
  • Population Characteristics
  • Sex Offenses*
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Social Problems*
  • Women*