Revisiting Trafficking Narratives and Sexual Danger in 20th-Century Europe and the Americas

AHA Session 30
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians 2
Coordinating Council for Women in History 2
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Chelsea (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Philippa Hetherington, University College London
The Audience

Session Abstract

Nearly thirty years ago, Judith R. Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight (1992) turned historians’ attention to the “narratives of sexual danger” that accompanied the moral panic of “white slavery” in late Victorian London. She explored why stories about the sexual coercion of young women and girls were compelling to a wide array of social constituencies, and how the discursive production of sexual danger and female victimhood could both empower and disempower women.

These presentations build on three decades of scholarship on white slavery, the traffic in women, and women’s sexual and intimate labor to ask new questions about what is now called “sex trafficking.” We explore the range of meanings “trafficking” generated in newspapers, travel writing, social reformers’ accounts, and in feminist debate. Frydman and Fuentes focus on the press and its power both to produce and discount sexual danger for working-class female migrants. Camiscioli describes how shipping companies and travelogues depicted the sexual danger of maritime travel—and also the sexual opportunities it enabled. Pliley investigates the re-emergence of feminist rescue narratives in the 1980s United States, especially following the publication of Kathleen Barry’s Female Sexual Slavery (1979).

Each author emphasizes the rhetorical power of trafficking/anti-trafficking narratives while also revealing alternative readings, strategic reframings, and outright contests over meaning. For example, Pliley explains that in sex workers’ rights publications of the 1970s, the trafficking narrative did not exist; however, the triumph of Barry’s “militarized” anti-vice feminism in the 1980s facilitated the reconstruction of a “rescue industry.” Fuentes shows the contradictory outcomes that stemmed from applying the racialized idiom of white slavery to brown-skinned Mexican dancers migrating to the US-occupied Panama Canal Zone, including an unwillingness to frame these women as deserving of protection. Frydman’s interpretation of French classified advertising foregrounds the avid female readers who scoured the want ads in search of potentially lucrative employment. And Camiscioli notes that for female migrants, the sea was a space of adventure and sexual opportunity, despite the dire warnings of social reformers and immigration officials.

The panel brings the gendered and sexual history of migration and labor into dialogue with new literatures on the history of citizenship, mobility, and capitalism. It also speaks to on-going concerns in contemporary politics around the relationship between labor and movement, “forced” and “free” migration, and the politics of humanitarianism.

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