In the early 1990s, the debate on human trafficking was restricted to a handful of feminists and revolved around establishing “the trafficking of women” as a case of labor migration or one of “female sexual slavery.” Two decades later, the debate is more complicated and widespread, yet within the proliferation of attention, a convergence among some of the most vocal and visible campaigns is discernible. This article takes up three prominent campaigns that dominate contemporary debates internationally—modern anti-slavery, abolitionist feminism, and celebrity humanitarianism—and considers the politics that emerge at the points of their convergence. It is argued that rather than getting to “the bottom of things,” as Emma Goldman urged over a century ago in relation to the “traffic of women,” a 21st-century version of the “white man’s burden” is apparent, supported by contemporary western, neoliberal interests that maintain boundaries between the haves and the have-nots, while bolstering an image of a compassionate, benevolent West. The article points toward an alternate framework, one that is lodged in a commitment to social and economic justice, decolonization, a redistribution of wealth, and respect for subaltern experience and knowledge.
British laws which sought to control and prevent street prostitution in the early twentieth century all relied on the idea that a ‘common prostitute’ was a legally definable person, and, while prostitution itself was not an offence, that the action of street solicitation represented a special kind of public nuisance. This article explores some of the implications of this legal system, especially after prostitutes were added to the fingerprinting schedule of the London Metropolitan Police in 1917. Centred around one rare case-file concerning the mistaken identity of a street prostitute in 1920, the article explores the way in which women working as prostitutes experienced and negotiated the criminal justice system. In contrast to the historical attention given to the Contagious Diseases Acts, the solicitation laws are seriously under-examined. Yet these laws were put in place prior to the CD Acts, lasted long after their repeal, affected a far greater number of women, and were significantly more important to the police and the state in their control of prostitution than were the short-lived and geographically limited CD Acts. In the context of the CD Acts, historians have looked at the ways in which a prostitute identity was developed and assigned by medical discourse and medical registration. However, the far more common and long-lasting experience of prostitute women in Britain was governed by the solicitation laws and a legal, not medical, process of classification. Through Nellie Johnson’s story, we can begin to explore the intricacies of a legal system of prostitution control peculiar to Britain at a crucial point in its development. This article argues that over the course of the early twentieth century, the criminalization of identity became the grounds upon which the entire system of street- prostitution control in England and Wales rested. The fingerprinting of prostitutes, and Nellie Johnson’s personal experiences, fit into a larger story of modernization in early twentieth-century Britain and the early twentieth-century world. This period witnessed the development of particular, and technical, forms of identification which were applied to particular groups of people, an abstraction which turned the body itself into a text that had very real consequences for women like Nellie Johnson.
As this essay intends to show, to gain a fuller understanding of Nazi attitudes toward prostitution, it is vital to analyze them in the context of Weimar conflicts over prostitution reform. Recent studies on the history of prostitution in the Third Reich tend to neglect pre-1933 developments. If historians mention the topic of Weimar prostitution policy at all, it is primarily to emphasize basic continuities in this area after the Nazi takeover. Thus, Gisela Bock has argued that Weimar prostitution reforms paved the way for the sexual and economic exploitation of prostitutes under National Socialism. However, the notion of unbroken continuities between Weimar and Nazi attitudes toward venal sex is problematic for several reasons. The exclusive focus on continuity tends to obscure important differences between the two periods. Far from representing a mere prelude to the brutal persecution of prostitutes after 1933, the nationwide abolition of state-regulated prostitution in 1927 led to significant improvements in prostitutes’ civil and legal status. To acknowledge these (albeit limited) gains in prostitutes’ rights is key for the analysis of the impact that concerns about “immorality” had on the crisis of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism.
The more liberal aspects of Weimar prostitution reforms triggered a powerful right-wing backlash. In the eyes of religious conservatives, the state’s perceived failure to enforce “moral order” and cleanse the streets of prostitutes profoundly discredited Weimar democracy. Among large segments of the police, the loss of authority to control and punish streetwalkers similarly bred resentment against the democratic government. The Nazis were keenly aware of the propagandistic value of the issue of prostitution. Nazi attacks on the 1927 prostitution reform as yet another expression of Weimar’s “materialism” and “moral decay” aimed to widen the party’s appeal among the religious Right and conservative officials. During the early 1930s, the Nazis’ successful attempt to portray themselves as guardians of conventional morality intent on eliminating “vice” was key to winning them the approval and collaboration of many conservatives. We can only account fully for this dynamic, however, if we recognize some of the positive achievements of Weimar prostitution reforms. The abolition of state-regulated prostitution was one of the major successes of the 1920s movement for sexual reform, which failed to achieve other goals such as the decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality. This is why Weimar prostitution reforms became a central target of Nazi propaganda.
This article examines the League of Nations Advisory Committee on the Trafficking of Women and Children (CTW) to assess the impact of international feminists on the interwar anti-sex trafficking movement. It argues that women who were firmly embedded in the transnational and international women’s rights movement built a coalition on the CTW to ensure the prominence of the feminist abolitionist position of sex trafficking in the 1920s. This position was defined by calls for equal standards of morality between the sexes, resistance to laws that treated prostitutes as a group and infringed on their human rights, and unwavering demands for the abolition of state-regulated prostitution. Changes in the personnel and bureaucratic structure of the CTW and the rising tide of nationalism served to undermine the feminist abolitionists’ position in the League in the 1930s.