Intimidated from leaving the house [of prostitution], forced to submit her person to the last indignity that can be inflicted upon a woman, here she was a slave as was ever any negro upon Virginian soil.1
On 2 January 1880, Alfred Stace Dyer, a publisher and opponent of state-regulated prostitution, wrote to the Daily News to expose the fact that young English girls were immured in the licensed brothels of the near Continent. With this, the phenomenon of sex trafficking entered popular consciousness in England and the country’s anti-trafficking movement was inaugurated. The domestic campaign against the regulation of prostitution, led by the revered women’s rights activist Josephine Butler, had been the prime force in England’s fight against systematic female sexual exploitation since 1869. The anti-trafficking movement, in contrast, was, and would continue to be, dominated by men.
The leaders of the new movement predicated their rhetoric on distinct concepts of domesticity, masculine duty and nationhood. Configurations of these concepts formed the ideological bedrock of dominant representations of sex trafficking during the first chapter of anti-trafficking activism in England between 1880 and 1912 (the year in which the Criminal Law Amendment (CLA) Bill that was promoted as the country’s first anti-trafficking measure was being debated). Employing variations of the doctrine of social purity, the leaders represented themselves as archetypal ‘fathers’ who, by defending the nation’s daughters from trafficking, were preserving English domesticity, the moral fabric of society and ultimately the welfare of the nation and empire. They promoted the need for other ‘ordinary men’ to follow their lead and help repel what they urged was a profound racial threat to national interests. Amid controversy over the 1912 CLA Bill, certain male activists subverted these notions through discourses that condemned anti-trafficking advocates, and turned ‘the home’ into a contested terrain for the men engaging with the question of sex trafficking. They cast particular organisations that were campaigning against trafficking as the real threat to English womanhood and domesticity, and positioned themselves, the (male) critics of anti-trafficking protest, as the true heads of household and guardians of national interests.
The centrality of concepts of masculine domesticity in dominant discourses of sex trafficking, I argue in this article, had important consequences. It caused a repressive politics of patriarchy to prevail in key portrayals of trafficking that exalted ‘the respectable white English male’ above all others. Specifically, it caused representations that progressively stigmatised the victims of trafficking, marginalised women, and demonised certain ‘foreigners’ to accompany – and detract from – the practical inroads that were made by the country’s anti-trafficking movement throughout the period.