Human Trafficking in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Discussions regarding trafficking have traditionally been closely related to prostitution and more specifically to women and girls being sold into prostitution. The 19th-century discourses on prostitution came from England as well as other western European countries and the United States.

The “regulationists” in England saw prostitution as a necessary evil and sanctioned a state system of licensed brothels. Policy makers and the general public saw prostitutes as deviant and as spreading diseases. A series of Contagious Disease Prevention Acts enacted by the British government brought forth moral outrage amongst feminists, such as Josephine Butler, who spoke out against the forced examinations of women. Known as “abolitionists” Butler and others blamed “unbridled male lust” for prostitution and viewed involuntary prostitution as “white slave trade.” (White slavery came to mean the procurement by force, deceit, or drugs, of a white girl against her will for prostitution.)

With much support from social purity reformers, who joined the abolitionists in their efforts, stories of innocent white girls forced into prostitution began flooding the media and garnering public support for punishment of anyone who enticed a woman for immoral purposes. A campaign focusing on morality initiated by the social purity reformers soon overtook the abolitionist agenda. The Criminal Law Amendment Acts in Britain (1885) and the Mann Act in the US (1910) made prostitution a legal offense.

Content by Mini Singh
Research Analyst, FSE

Content in Arabic by Raja El Habti
Research Assistant, FSE