Crime, Gender, and Sexuality in Criminal Prosecutions

By Louis A. Knafla | Go to book overview

The White Slave Trade and the British Empire

Philippa Levine

In this chapter, I want to redraw the contours of a historical problem with which most of us have at least a passing familiarity—the white slave trade or white slave traffic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though this is an issue with a surprisingly small historiography, it is nonetheless a phenomenon—or at least a catchphrase—with considerable currency. Generally, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that historians, at any rate, see the white slave trade as symptomatic of a racialized fin-de-siècle moral panic that gripped most English-speaking countries in the late nineteenth century, a moral panic that ensued (not entirely surprisingly) at around the same time as organized women’s groups began demanding a reevaluation of the rights of citizenship and at a moment after the American Civil War had failed to extend those rights fully in the New World. These are key sites for understanding the white slave trade as a historical representation, but I want to suggest some rather less familiar contexts that might help us reassess the issue usefully. My two new “flagposts” are crime and colonialism—crime because the sex industry has long been associated with criminal “justice” and the underworld, and colonization because, as I hope to be able to demonstrate here, the narrative of the white slave trade necessarily took on new meanings and representations when the ground shifted from “metropolis” to “colony.”

Thinking about women’s crime has not been an easy task for feminists. Quantitatively minded criminologists have dismissed female crime as statistically insignificant; a long line of commentators stretching back into the mid–nineteenth century have linked female delinquency to women’s independence in an attempt to stem both; and the very binaries constructed around crime—moral and immoral, victim and perpetrator—have dogged attempts to reformulate and reconsider the behaviors we routinely associate

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