Marriage as Ruse or Migration Route: Jewish Women’s Mobility and Sex Trafficking to Argentina, 1890s-1930s

Yarfitz, Mir. ‘Marriage as Ruse or Migration Route: Jewish Women’s Mobility and Sex Trafficking to Argentina, 1890s-1930s’. Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary e-Journal 17, no. 1 (15 October 2020).


The victim narrative of the international anti-white slavery movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century highlighted the suffering of prostituted women entrapped by violent men. Due to both antisemitic exaggeration and the reality of Ashkenazi Jewish networks of international sex work management in this period, Jews faced particular scrutiny as traffickers, and organized internationally with non-Jewish reformers against the phenomenon. Reformers often decried the shtile khupe, a Jewish religious marriage ceremony without a civil component, as a key trafficking technique. Drawing on League of Nations archives, court records, and the Yiddish, Spanish, and English press, this essay provides a granular social history of marriage and associated relational strategies for cross-border migration and structuring Jewish sex work on the ground in early-twentieth-century Buenos Aires. Evidence from sex workers and their managers pushes against these victimization narratives, reframing marriage as a method to achieve transnational mobility and improve labor and living conditions. Historical and contemporary feminist responses to trafficking share rhetorical strategies and critiques – in both past and present, transnational sex work can be analyzed in a migratory rather than coercive context, centering individuals making difficult choices from among limited options.

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