Constructing the Traffic
as an International Social Problem
THE RESPONSE TO THE INTERNATIONALIZATION OF Prostitution and the increase in trafficking in the late nineteenth century emerged out of the work of the two main international voluntary associations that fostered the movement and struggled over its agenda and direction: the International Abolitionist Federation and the International Bureau. Abolitionists and their supporters worked to pressure state officials to change their policies in the name of broad, universal beliefs about gender and individual human rights, while purity reformers worked explicitly with state officials to control sexual activity in the nation and empire. The movement was thus characterized from the start by conflict between the effort to construct a transnational movement—one that would use networks of reformers across countries to challenge state policies in domestic and international settings—and an internationalism that would serve only to reinforce state interests.1 It was the latter influence that eventually won out, accounting for the success of the movement in attracting state officials and becoming part of the formal work of the League of Nations.
Academics often conflate the many and varied actors in the anti-trafficking movement and condemn it rather sweepingly for a variety of faults: promoting Victorian prudery; focusing on the “white slave trade” while ignoring the traffic in women of color or, conversely, calling for an end to the exploitation of nonEuropean women in the colonies because of fears about race mixing; and being elitist and paternalistic by failing to include prostitutes in the movement and portraying them as “victims” rather than as voluntary agents who were migrating of their own free will.2 To understand the development and dynamics of the movement fully, however, it is important not to gloss over the distinctions