What Is White Slavery?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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 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 white slavery panic seemed to ignore actual cases of human trafficking.
The white slavery panic seemed to ignore actual cases of human trafficking.

The first 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 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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - I think that it's also tied up in racist sexuality though. I've always heard of 'white slavery' being connected with forced prostitution.

And the thing is, there isn't really any point in getting slaves from a developed country for many other reasons. Labor is cheap all over the world. About the only thing a white person can offer that a person of another color can't is the way they look, which is only really going to be a commodity in the sex trade.

At what point does labor become slavery though? Many children in sweat shops probably get paid less than what they would cost to be fed as slaves and they often can't leave. I think what needs to be redefined is our definition of slavery.


@umbra21 - Unfortunately that is human nature. We have to make an effort of will to really connect with people that our brains don't consider to be part of our own group.

Which is why slavery can exist in the first place. In a modern society, you really have to be able to see someone as being less human than yourself to justify treating them as a possession without free will.

There were historic cases of "white slaves" such as the Irish who were captured by Barbary pirates hundreds of years ago and sold in the Middle East.

But from what I can tell, most of the time in history, there was a sense that slaves were still people and could be freed with no consequences. I know this was definitely true in Greece and Rome. Whereas slaves in the USA and Europe from Africa seemed to have been viewed as little more (or even less) than animals and slavery was considered their natural state.

I suspect that the residue of this disgusting belief is what precipitates the outrage over white slavery today. People who still believe that being white, rather than being human, entitles someone to freedom.


It really makes me mad that people react to stories like this with horror but completely ignore other reports of slavery when the people involved aren't necessarily pale-skinned.

Modern slavery involves people of all races, but it is more often than not inflicted on impoverished people who have no recourse. And in the modern world those people are almost always (although not exclusively) people of color.

Yet white people only seem to be truly invested when they believe it might happen to their own neighbors. It speaks to a real inability to look beyond their own little group.

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