In the period between the two world wars, feminists campaigned through the League of Nations against the traffic in women and against prostitution itself. This campaign was extensive, lengthy, international, and surprisingly successful, but is little known amongst contemporary feminists. The ideas and strategy of this earlier campaign are fascinating for the similarities to and differences from the feminist anti-prostitution campaign of groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women today. The distinction currently made by prostitutes’ rights groups and many human rights activists between forced and free prostitution, in which “free” prostitution is regarded as the exercise of a reasonable choice, was clearly a problem in this earlier time too. But then, as we shall see, no feminists were making the distinction, only the men who opposed them. These earlier feminist campaigners fought to gain recognition that the
cause of prostitution lay not in women, but in men’s demand. They wanted campaigns of public education to eliminate the demand. Today feminist anti-prostitution campaigners still seek to gain recognition of men’s responsibility for prostitution, still seek to make the abusive men visible. The unity and clarity of these pre-World War II feminist activists throws into sharp relief the confusion that has allowed some feminist theorists and activists at the end of the twentieth century to give support to a pro-prostitution ideology that sees prostitution as women’s choice, work and sexual liberation.Historians of sexuality have tended to dismiss the late nineteenth-century concern with what came to be called the White Slave Traffic as a “moral panic” because it was allegedly directed towards a phenomenon so unimportant in real terms as to indicate a concern with something quite different from its ostensible object. Jeffrey Weeks (1981) suggests that there was, in this period, a transferred panic from other social anxieties onto sexuality. I suggest here that the concern about the White Slave Traffic was indeed about more than the traffic itself. For feminists, campaigning against the White Slave Traffic was a way of gaining ground in their struggle against prostitution in general. In the period between the world wars the traffic was chosen as an issue which would secure the support of influential men, such as those in the League of Nations. Progress could be made, through careful manipulation of the agenda, towards their ultimate aim, the elimination of men’s use of women in prostitution. But the traffic in women was an important matter of concern in its own right. The traffic which feminists were concerned with in the 1920s and 1930s was one in which women were transported to other countries to be prostituted, but not necessarily or usually by deception or force. The women usually knew, as we shall see, that they would be prostituted.In the popular mind, the traffic was understood to involve force and violence and to be carried out against the victim’s will. There was little established evidence of a traffic exhibiting these characteristics, but much more evidence, as the League of Nations reports were to show, of a traffic in which the women involved knew of the use to which they would be put. The campaign began in 1875 through the work of Josephine Butler in England, already experienced in campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts.