The Straight Dope

I've always wondered about stories of Western women being kidnapped and sold to sheikhs in the Middle East, a practice that supposedly ended sometime in the last century. It stretches credulity to believe that a young woman from, say, England or France could be snatched off a boat or a train, brought to the Gulf region, and sold to a harem, never to be heard from again. If this happened so often to so many women, wouldn't one be able to escape at one time or another and "blow the whistle" on the whole operation, sparking an international outcry?

--Mark Cooper, Aurora, Illinois

I asked Little Ed to see what he could find in the card file under "white slavery." He came up with "Blond Sluts Ready for Whipping." Ed, I said, the fact that it appeared on a web page asking for your credit card number argues strongly against its having authentic nineteenth-century origins. Not that sex slaves are strictly a nineteenth-century phenomenon. For that matter, Mark, I don't know where you got the idea that the kidnap victims all wound up in some sultan's seraglio. Maybe we'd better take the whole thing from the top.

Panic over the "traffic in women," commonly known as white slavery, has surfaced periodically in the West, most notably in England in the 1880s and again in the United States in the decade prior to World War I. In the classic telling of the tale, young girls were abducted or cajoled from their homes and spirited away to some foreign shore, where they were sold to brothels or wealthy rakes. The foreign shore wasn't necessarily all that far away. In Victorian England the main locus of iniquity wasn't the Middle East, but France.

White slavery was a natural target for defenders of public morality and crusading journalists. In 1885 the famous English muckraker William Stead published a series of sensational articles in the Pall Mall Gazette, revealing that he'd purchased five virgins, one of whom was only thirteen. The articles described a sordid sexual underworld in which rich men, with the connivance of the police and public officials, brazenly trafficked in children to satisfy their unspeakable lusts. The ensuing outcry led to the passage of antislavery legislation in parliament.

A similar uproar arose in the United States in 1910, when the U.S. attorney in Chicago proclaimed that an international crime ring was abducting young girls in Europe and forcing them to work in Chicago brothels. This led Illinois congressman James Mann to introduce what became known as the White Slave Traffic Act, or Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of minors across state lines for criminal purposes. Whatever impact the Mann Act may have had on white slavery (not much, one suspects), its most common use was to prosecute men for having sex with underage women.

How prevalent was (and is) sex slavery, really? I'd hesitate to dismiss the whole thing as a myth, as some commentators have done. There are plenty of child prostitutes in the world, and it's safe to say few of them got into the business willingly. Kidnapping, as opposed to luring under false pretenses, is probably uncommon, but it happens even today. In 1997 two men in Oregon were charged with white slavery for transporting two girls, ages thirteen and fourteen, from Canada and forcing them to have sex with different men. There are also numerous reports of sex slavery in Asia.

On the other hand, the most lurid claims--e.g., that the sex-slave trade was a well-organized criminal enterprise, with tentacles in just about every major city--were almost certainly exaggerated. Investigators of alleged abductions in Victorian England often found that the victims had gone voluntarily. The white slavery paranoia in English-speaking countries created a climate of prudery that led to campaigns against music halls, racy French novels, and the like, and eventually to the criminalizing of prostitution, that most ancient of professions. One doesn't want to wink at kidnapping, child prostitution, and so on. But, as Bill Clinton can tell you, just because something's immoral doesn't mean it should be a crime.

Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or e-mail him at [email protected].