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“White Slavery”: Sex Trafficking In The UK Press (Part 1)

2012 July 16
Cover of a 1910 book called Fighting the traffic in young girls; or, War on the white slave trade, featuring a beautiful girl in white dress behind bars, looking anxious

1910 book from the US about the ‘white slave trade’

While we’re still sloshing around in the journalistic sewage unleashed by the Leveson enquiry, it seems like a good time to revisit some research into media misrepresentation I did back in 2007.

I looked at a sample of 316 articles about the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation drawn from UK national newspapers between September 2005 and September 2007. After speaking to some lucky people studying this topic today, I’m sad to say it hasn’t changed much. In fact it hasn’t changed much since, ooh, 1885.

The Maiden Tribute

The publication of a feature on “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 is often credited as the birth of scandal journalism, and the touchpaper for a moral panic over “white slavery” which rocked Victorian Britain. The similarity with today’s newspaper coverage of trafficking for sexual exploitation is striking. And, frankly, depressing.

The famous Pall Mall Gazette feature describes in titillating detail how “five pound virgins” are sold to lecherous aristocratic blackguards, after being “snared, trapped and outraged either when under the influence of drugs or after prolonged struggle in a locked room”. Thanks to the wonders of the web, the full article is available to read online. What is remarkable about it isn’t so much the contents of the article itself, but the reaction it provoked – a massive pile-on of outraged public opinion, political opportunism and rival newspaper bandwagon-jumping. Here’s a good description of the aftermath.

While it is undeniable that prostitution was widespread in Britain of the 19th century (and it wasn’t a nice life) the actual incidence of kidnap and ‘sexual slavery’ of the form described in The Maiden Tribute has since been subject to scrutiny. Historians, in particular Judith Walkowitz, have highlighted the discrepancy between the reformers’ view and the reality of prostitution in the 1880s, observing that:

the evidence of widespread involuntary prostitution of British girls in London and abroad is slim. During the 1870s and 1880s, officials and reformers were able to uncover a small traffic in women between Britain and the continent, although the women enticed into licensed brothels in Antwerp and Brussels were by no means the young innocents depicted in the sensational stories. Similarly, there undoubtedly were some child prostitutes on the streets of London, Liverpool, and elsewhere; most of these young girls were not victims of false entrapment.

Arguably the popularity of the ‘white slavery’ myth was partly because it offered an easy option of blaming a few evil, anonymous, male individuals for the hardships experienced by women and girls working in prostitution. Confronting the sexual double standard, crushing poverty and ignorance and the vast power imbalance between men and women would probably have landed the blame a little close to home for most readers.

Legitimate victims

Jo Doezema compares the explosion of media coverage of sex trafficking since 2000 (linked to the EU expansion and attendant mass immigration freakout) to the white slavery panic of the 1880s, identifying a number of similar themes – in particular the emphasis on the victim’s ‘innocence’, which she interprets as a device to make a distinction between legitimate victims and ‘guilty victims’: prostitutes. Doezema writes:

Only by removing all responsibility for her own condition from the prostitute could she be constructed as a victim… As with white slavery, ‘innocence’ is established in a number of ways: through stressing the ‘victims’ lack of knowledge of or unwillingness to accede to her fate; her youth — equated with sexual unawareness and thus purity; and/or her poverty.

My content analysis of newspaper articles about trafficking for sexual exploitation absolutely bore this out. Below I’ll do a quick trot through all the different elements identified by Doezema and give you some examples of the way they are played out in the press today.


The most obviously emphasised characteristic of the victims in the sample of newspapers I studied was youth. In virtually all the coverage the age of the woman was stated, and case studies of teenagers placed the age right at the start of the article. The few cases in which the woman was over 21 (the oldest was 36) stated the age in later paragraphs.

From my sample of 316 articles (which excluded those focused on trafficking in children) showed that 68%  used the word “girl” to describe the trafficked women, and 59% described the women as “young”.

This 2006 example from the Sunday Express opens the article with the age of the victim: “Dana was just 15 when she was brought to Britain on the promise of a summer job selling ice creams in London’s Hyde Park, but she ended up becoming a sex slave, forced to have sex with 50 men a week.” Dana’s youth is emphasised by the childlike associations of ‘ice cream’ and her ‘summer job’, strongly evocative of school. Even ‘London’s Hyde Park’ has a suggestion of a summer holiday. The journalist gleefully sets up a shocking contrast with her following enslavement.


Part of the importance of emphasising the youth of the victims is the implication of their innocence. Plenty of articles in the sample described the women explicitly as innocent: “innocent women like Maria”; “innocents… abducted into slavery” (both The Sun in 2006). However, many others conjure the idea of innocence through stressing vulnerability, naivety and terror, in combination with youth. One of the most visually striking is a description of two “girls” like “frightened rabbits” (Detective Constable Andy Justice, quoted in The Mirror, October 2005).

Other articles make very direct reference to their victims’ sexual inexperience as a way to hammer home their moral purity and by implication their ‘deserving’ status: “Until then I’d never even seen stockings before… I was being told I would have to do things with strangers that I had never done with anyone but my husband” (The Sun again, in 2005). Similarly, before “pretty Erica”, a “20 year-old brunette”, fell into the hands of “evil Albanian pimps”, we are informed by The News of the World in 2006 that she had “slept with only two men.” In the Star the preceding year, a “16 year-old…  virgin was forced to service dozens of punters a week.”

There is also a clear narrative pattern of kidnap and deception, which hides the complex and varied experiences and situations of trafficked women, many of whom are not simply snatched from their hometown. 59% of the articles in the sample featured one or more of: kidnap(ped), abduct(ed), lure(d), trick(ed), dupe(d).

Virtually all describe violent forms of coercion, and women are uniformly said to have been brought to Britain, with no admission of agency in their migration. The examples are endless: “They have been kidnapped, raped and abused before being exported” (campaigner Geraldine Rowley quoted in the Daily Mail in 2007), “the tide of eastern European women being brought into Britain” (the Sunday Telegraph, 2005), “duped into coming to Britain on the false promise of jobs as nannies or waitresses only to be forced into sex and brutality” (the Independent on Sunday, 2005).


Although a significant proportion of women are trafficked to the UK from Africa and South Asia, all but a tiny fraction of case studies and examples are Eastern European. Of the articles studied in the sample, 42% mentioned “Eastern Europe(an)”.

The endless list of Marias, Ericas, Natashas, and Francescas are also a way to create a titillating image of suffering in which virginal white women are left thrillingly at the mercy of swarthy foreigners. A “tiny terrified blonde” (People magazine, 2007) in the hands of an Albanian pimp.

Another journalist writes:

Back then the women for sale were mostly South Asian, Filipinas and Thai… But these new girls were blonde… And very young. Clearly export models from Eastern Europe had flooded the market, forcing up the quality.

– Janice Turner, The Times, December 3, 2005

Nice. Way to put presumably lower ‘quality’ Asian women in their place.

One of my favourite quotes (read: quotes that make me want to punch things) was from Denis MacShane, who wrote:

We are facing a new slave trade, whose victims are tortured, terrified East European girls rather than Africans.

Daily Telegraph, January 3, 2006

In fact the “new slave trade” includes large numbers of African women, but they are conveniently erased from the narrative.

In the second part of this post I’ll look at the significance and danger of the return of ‘white slavery’ narratives to the pages of the UK press.

Read part 2 here.

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