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The term “white slavery” is used to refer to a series of moral panics which arose in Britain and the United States around the turn of the 20th century. The white slavery panics revolved around fantastical tales of women of European descent being abducted and sold into sexual slavery, with details varying depending on the era and the author of the story. While trafficking in human beings for a variety of purposes, including prostitution, continues to be a problem even today, it is generally believed that the uproar over “white slavery” had no basis in reality.
The first white slavery panic began in Victorian England, when a newspaper editor claimed that he was able to buy a young girl for a price roughly equivalent to a week's wages for a working person. This set off a series of inflammatory articles about the trade in “white slaves,” who were uniformly described as young, attractive women. The stories grew more fantastical over time until newspapers were reporting on alleged cases in which “respectable” women were abducted and sold into sexual slavery in the Ottoman harem.
In the United States, similar stories began circulating in the years before the First World War. Instead of casting the Middle East as the enemy, American papers fingered Chinese immigrants, claiming that immigrants from China were masterminding vast white slavery rings. The Pulitzer and Hearst papers both participated heavily in the fearmongering which surrounded white slavery, and Congress was driven to act in 1910 when it passed the Mann Act, which specifically outlawed enticing women across state borders for the purpose of prostitution.
Several themes can be seen in the reports of white slavery. The supposed victims were all cast as innocent young white women and the slavery was supposedly made more horrific by the fact that it involved women of European descent. This reflected cultural attitudes about people of other races, including beliefs that people of other racial origins didn't view being enslaved in the same way that Europeans did. Furthermore, white slavery panics also played on racial panics, reinforcing racial divides and contributing to hostile attitudes about people of other races. This certainly served a political goal; in the United States, for example, anti-Chinese sentiment allowed discriminatory laws to persist well into the 20th century.
Most intriguingly, the white slavery panics ignored the very real issues of indentured labor, forced prostitution, and human trafficking which were actually occurring at the turn of the 20th century. Children, for example, were forced to work in factories in both the United States and Britain, while sharecroppers in regions like the American South were so heavily indentured that they were functionally difficult to distinguish from slaves. It is also notable that in the United States, many people of European origin worked in homes and factories as indentured servants, and some were effectively treated as slaves, but their plight was not discussed in stories about white slavery.
Today, human trafficking across international borders is primarily focused on the movement of men and women who act as laborers. Some of these laborers are indeed slaves, while others work under restrictive indentures; it is estimated as of 2010 that around 27 million people worldwide are slaves or forced laborers. Forced prostitution also continues to be an issue in many regions of the world.