I’ve been studying the campaign for the so-called white slave legislation of 1912 as part of my research into why, at the time of the movement for women’s suffrage, men and women could work together on some causes, but not on others. The ‘White Slave’ legislation – formally titled the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1912) – was a much-rejected private bill which was unexpectedly taken up by the Liberal Government when there was a sudden swell of public support for it. Its primary target was the supposed trafficking of English women and girls to foreign brothels. This was, it was alleged, a growing problem which was proving hard to police. The ‘White Slave’ legislation also tightened the laws concerning prostitution by making it easier to prosecute and punish procurers, ‘bullies’ and pimps.
The coalition of campaigning groups included women from the various women’s suffrage organisations, the churches, and social purity leagues. Men were also involved. One of the leading organisations was the men’s society for women’s rights, which despite its name, also had women supporters and donors. As well as lobbying ministers and MPs to pass the ‘White Slave’ bill, it publicised court cases in which men were prosecuted for violence against women and girls, and provided legal support to the women. It supported women’s suffrage, and was especially critical of anti-suffrage men who harrassed women suffragists at demonstrations and meetings.
The Men’s Society for Women’s Rights produced two newspapers: The Awakener and The Eye-Opener, which are a useful source for identifying the nature and limits of men’s support.
The newspapers show vehement support for the legislation, including its proposal to allow magistrates to impose sentences of flogging, which had effectively died out as a punishment. But it is also important to note that the male campaigners wanted to restrict the application of the legislation so that it touched only the supply side of prostitution, and penalised only the men who organised and profited from it. They had very little to say about men’s demand for commercial sex in general. The campaigners were also emphatic that the clients were not people they knew themselves, that the men who organised prostitution were foreigners and not British, and that their victims were not established prostitutes, but duped, innocent English girls. Indeed, The Awakener ran stories to reveal the traffickers’ techniques of entrapment, which included drugged chocolates and ‘decoy nuns’, who invited unsuspecting girls to church meetings, abducted them, and sold them into ‘white slavery’.
When others wrote to the newspapers to point out that there was little reliable evidence of ‘white slave’ trafficking, that the women who went to work in foreign brothels were mostly experienced prostitutes who did so voluntarily, and that the law and policing were already adequate to address the few cases of abduction that occurred, the campaigners’ response was furious. For them the legislation served other purposes: to distance themselves from ‘deviants’ and from ‘foreigners’, and to signal the willingness of the ‘good’ men to protect women against the ‘bad’ men. It was this aspect – the disjointness, as I term it – which allowed the men and women to work together. Their coalition of support could not easily have survived the broadening of attention to ‘clients’. For example, the military condoning of prostitution was a sticking-point in the campaign. It horrified women, but was defended by at least some men. Their concern was therefore to focus attention on the suppliers of English women to satisfy perverse foreign sexual tastes. This ‘over-tightening’- the combination of an intensity of concern with precise focus elsewhere, i.e. at a distance from the campaigners themselves – is an important type of ‘disjoint’ work. It is easily mistaken for a broader concern than it in fact shows (and designedly so). It depersonalises the issue, which permits certain forms of alliance and solidarity which would not be possible were ‘the personal’ in consideration. It is an example of what I term the personal of the political. In this case, the sign of the over-tightening is that once the legislation was passed, and a special branch of the Metropolitan Police created to catch the ‘white slave’ traders, it could not find any of them.
note added: I compare the campaign over the ‘white slave’ traffic with other campaigns for male purity, where the personal is acknowledged (and unacknowledged) in different ways, here.
IMAGE CREDITS: ANONYMOUS PHOTOGRAPHER, PICCADILLY CIRCUS AT NIGHT (DETAIL) (GLASS SLIDE, c.1910) CREATED FOR THE LONDON AND MIDDLESEX ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY FOR MAGIC LANTERN SHOWS, LAMAS/A425, BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE, LONDON. TEXT OVERLAY AND SNOWFALL ADDED.