Notable Recent Works on Trafficking and Migration: An Annotated Bibliography

May 10, 2021
By: Jessica R. Pliley

This bibliography accompanies Dr. Pliley’s article on the intersection of scholarship on intimate labor and migration in the IEHS newsletter. Since there has been much significant work in the area, she has selected particularly notable publications that have appeared since 2013. 

Jean-Michel Chaumont, Magaly Rodríguez García, and Paul Servais, eds., Trafficking in Women, 1924–1926: The Paul Kinsie Reports for the League of Nations, Two Volumes (Geneva: United Nations, 2017).

This two-volume set is a delight for trafficking historians. In 1927, the League of Nations published the results of its investigation of sex trafficking between Europe, North Africa, and the Americas. Undercover investigators from the American Social Hygiene Association conducted the study. The most intrepid of these was Paul Kinsie, who visited 60 cities in 30 countries on three continents from 1924 to 1926. Kinsie’s gossipy private reports from his investigation are a treasure trove of information about migrant communities, vice networks, and the black market. Jean-Michel Chaumont, Magaly Rodríguez García, and Paul Servais have collected the reports in one place for researchers (volume 1). Essays written by leading historians about the sex markets of the main cities visited by the investigators comprise volume 2. 

Katherine Benton-Cohen, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Katherine Benton-Cohen demonstrates how the 1909 white slavery report of the US Immigration Commission, commonly called the Dillingham Commission, offered women investigators valuable job opportunities. She reminds us that government investigation, regulation, and policing of some women led to job opportunities for other women.

Elisa Camiscioli, “Choice and Coercion: The ‘Traffic in Women’ between France and Argentina in the Early Twentieth Century,” French Historical Studies 42, no. 3 (August 2019): 483–507.

This award-winning article moves beyond the binary of coercion and choice to interrogate the ways French women and girls in Buenos Aires utilized the script of the white slavery narrative to gain aid from French authorities. Camiscioli’s work documents the profound vulnerability and perceived opportunities of young French migrant women working in the sex trades. 

Sandy Chang, “Across the South Seas: Gender, Intimacy, and Chinese Migration to British Malaya, 1877–1940” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2020).

Tracing the migration of over a hundred thousand Chinese women who traveled as wives, domestic servants, and sex workers, Chang teases apart the tangled threads of Chinese women’s intimate labor within British Malaya. Attending to the development of global border controls characterized by documentary migration governance, Chang incorporates histories of the intimate that show the ways Chinese women resisted their own economic and social precarity. This work is particularly remarkable for its reliance on Chinese and English sources and on oral histories conducted in Mandarin, Hakka, and Cantonese. 

Sandy Chang, “Intimate Itinerancy: Chinese Women in Colonial Malaya’s Brothel Economy, 1870s–1930s,” Journal of Women’s History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2021): forthcoming.

Moving beyond the binaries of free and unfree migration, exploitative or exploited, and agent or victim, Sandy Chang analyzes colonial brothels in British Malaya as sites of female cooperative economies that offered sexual, reproductive, and affective labor that sustained the Chinese migrant community. She shows how the white slavery panic was reconfigured into the problem of the yellow traffic that needed to be addressed by colonial authorities who increasingly imposed draconian measures of surveillance, incarceration, and banishment (deportation) against female brothel entrepreneurs in the 1930s.

Catherine Christensen, “Mujeres Públicas: American Prostitutes in Baja California, 1910–1930,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 2 (2013): 215–47. 

Catherine Christensen documents the cross-border migration of American women who sold sex in Mexican border towns from the 1910s to the 1930s. These women utilized their “Americanness” to claim the benefits of whiteness in Mexican sex markets yet also relied on Mexican state officials to protect their rights to sell sex as legitimate economic actors. 

Grace Peña Delgado, “Border Control and Sexual Policing: White Slavery and Prostitution along the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands, 1903–1910,” The Western Historical Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 157–78.

Looking at the US–Mexico border, Grace Peña Delgado explores the ways that the convergence of the anti-prostitution movement and immigration law promoted the policing of Mexican sex workers and procurers producing a racialized border control regime. She builds her analysis through a careful reading of the reports of on-the-ground immigration inspectors, while also offering detailed readings of the experiences of women who sold sex. 

Anna Dobrowolska, “‘Everyone Dreams about Leaving’: Debates on Human Trafficking in State-Socialist Poland,” Journal of Women’s History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2021): forthcoming.

By looking at two Polish sex trafficking scandals—one in 1973 involving the migration of women to Dubai and another in 1981 featuring women trafficked to Italy—Anna Dobrowolska shifts our attention to Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. She demonstrates that sex trafficking narratives re-emerged in socialist Poland in times of moral and economic crisis as the country relaxed migration controls and embraced Western consumption. These scandals provided fodder for political rivalry between the communist regime and conservative opposition, which articulated opposing moralities and demands to protect Polish women.

Christina Elizabeth Firpo, Black Market Business: Selling Sex in Northern Vietnam, 1920–1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Christina Firpo includes a thoughtful analysis of the trafficking of Vietnamese women and girls for intimate labor (sex work and domestic work) from Tonkin, by land to China, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok, and by sea to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore. Her work sheds light on French colonial governance of state-regulated brothels and its negotiation with the international abolitionist movement gaining ground during the period within the League of Nations. 

Pamela Fuentes, “‘White Slavery’ and Cabarets: Mexican Artists in Panama in the 1940s,” Journal of Women’s History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2021): forthcoming.

Pamela Fuentes examines the scandal that erupted within the Mexican press when reports of Mexican cabaret workers dancing in Panama in the early 1940s appeared in print. She suggests that white slavery narratives became entangled with anxieties about the decent and indecent work offered in new commercial entertainment sites where alcohol, music, and women’s dancing bodies gratuitously mingled. She reminds us that the anxieties about women’s labor migration were often refracted through a sexualized lens. 

Magaly Rodríguez García, “The League of Nations and the Moral Recruitment of Women,” International Review of Social History 57 (2012): 97–128. 

Magaly Rodríguez García argues that the League of Nations Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children engaged in the “moral recruitment of women” in order first, to protect women and girls from sex work by ensuring “good employment” and second, to repress intermediaries in the sex marketplace via criminalization. Protecting women and girls from entering prostitution by offering decent work was to fall within the realm of nongovernmental organizations, while criminalizing third-party profiteering from sex would be the responsibility of international and national authorities through the creation of international conventions and through the international diffusion of anti-trafficking legislation and immigration law.

Magaly Rodríguez García, “Child Slavery, Sex Trafficking or Domestic Work? The League of Nations and Its Analysis of the Mui Tsai System,” in Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Workers, ed. Dirk Hoerder, Elise van Nederveen, and Silke Neunsinger (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 428–50.

Magaly Rodríguez García explores international responses in Geneva to the mui tsai system, a system practiced in China, Hong Kong, and Malaya that transferred girls from poor homes to rich homes, where they engaged in domestic labor. For the League of Nations’ Committee on the Traffic in Women and Girls the system highlighted female vulnerability to sexual exploitation and a possible cover for the recruiting and brokering of sex workers. For the International Labor Office, the question was one of poor working conditions, and for the League’s Slavery Committee, the system constituted a form of child slavery. This essay reveals the entanglements between feminized domestic labor and sexual labor.

Magaly Rodríguez García, Lex Heerma van Voss, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Selling Sex in the City: A Global History of Prostitution, 1600s–2000s (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

Though this ambitious collection is not specifically focused on migration, it remains a resource for scholars exploring the history of regulated prostitution, urban migration, and women’s labor. It includes individual essays on twenty-tree cities around the globe written by expert scholars. It also includes eight thematic essays, including one by Nicole Keusch on migration and prostitution. Because so many of the cities profiled in the book were major migratory hubs, the theme of migration—global, regional, rural-to-urban—appears throughout the text. 

Torrie Hester, Deportation: The Origins of US Policy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). 

The fourth chapter of this book, which is about the development if US deportation policy from 1882 to 1924, focuses on the integral role that anti-sex trafficking immigration law (the Page Act, the 1903, 1910, and 1917 immigration acts) had in establishing what Adam Goodman calls the “deportation machine.” Torrie Hester argues that the deportation of practicing prostitutes “created the explicit governmental power to deport for actions taken on US soil—for post-entry infractions.” The US Immigration Bureau deported prostitutes to protect the country for the scourge of white slavery, yet in enforcing these anti-trafficking laws the line between protection and punishment became blurred.

Philippa Hetherington, “Victims of the Social Temperament: Prostitution, Migration and the Traffic in Women from Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, 1885–1935” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014). 

White slavery narratives claimed that most of the world’s trafficking victims came from Russian lands. Examining prostitution politics from a “sending country,” Philippa Hetherington documents how fears of sex trafficking intersected with emigration policy in Imperial Russia, the militarization of prostitution management during World War I and the Russian Civil War, and the production of international tensions between the Soviet Union and the League of Nations over the trafficking of Russian woman to China in the 1930s. She pays close attention to competing governmentalities. 

Liat Kozma, Global Women, Colonial Ports: Prostitution in the Interwar Middle East (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016). 

Looking at North Africa and the Middle East, Liat Kozma demonstrates that the creation of international anti-trafficking norms and state-regulated prostitution emerged from multiple sites—including colonial locales. She balances attention to prostitution governance with the everyday experiences of women who migrated to sell sex. This book decenters the Atlantic Ocean as it centers the role of colonial governance and anti-colonial nationalism in the interwar Mediterranean. 

Julia Laite, “Traffickers and Pimps in the Era of White Slavery,” Past and Present 237, no. 1 (2017): 237–69. 

Julia Laite examines the roles that men played as intermediaries in the global sex market in the early twentieth century. Using the story of Antonio Carvelli and Alexander di Nicotera—two Italian men arrested as white slavers in London for trafficking women from Australia to Argentina, France, and England—Laite urges a more complicated understanding of traffickers and pimps. She notes that these men “were themselves often exploited and marginalized, even if their response to these experiences was to exploit others.”

Julia Laite, “Between Scylla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour Migration and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century,” International Review of Social History 62, no. 1 (2017): 37–65. 

Looking at the discursive entanglements between women’s work and sex trafficking that emerged as international conceptions of trafficking were being codified in the midst of the white slave panic, Julia Laite analyses the porous borders among sex work, women’s licit work, and women’s sexual exploitation and labor exploitation. This essay points to the ways that international and British discussions of prostitution and sex trafficking—viewed as women’s indecent work—always veered to conversations about women’s decent work and the poor wages this kind of work offered. 

Julia Laite, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: OneTtrial, Six Lives and the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (London: Profile, 2021).

In this microhistory, Julia Laite traces the misadventures of the elusive Lydia Harvey, who travelled from her home in New Zealand to Buenos Aires and then to England where, in 1910, police identified her as a trafficking victim. Tracking the lives of all those connected to the Harvey case—the traffickers, the police investigators, the social reformers, the social workers, and even the sea captain—Laite offers an engaging portrait of a mobile world and reckons with the challenges facing historians trying to center the agency of female migrants. 

Johan Mathew, Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

Looking at the entangled histories of trafficking and capitalism in the Arabian Sea from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, Johan Mathew offers a compelling account of trafficking in a variety of forms. With the coming of abolition, slavery became cloaked under kinship relations and women and children’s vulnerability to forced domestic labor increased. This domestic labor often had a sexual component, yet this form of trafficking remained invisible to British authorities and international anti-traffickers. Mathew’s work reminds us of the ways that the white slavery narratives highlighted some women’s vulnerability while ignoring the exploitation of other women.

Julia Martinez, “The League of Nations, Prostitution, and the Deportation of Chinese Women from Interwar Manila,” Journal of Women’s History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2021): forthcoming.

Examining the deportation cases of three Chinese women, Julia Martinez considers how in colonial Manila, US immigration law framed sex trafficking in abolitionist terms as did the majority of U.S. anti-prostitution organizations like the American Social Hygiene Association. She shows that Filipino leaders and police eagerly embraced the abolitionist position asserted by internationalist women affiliated with the League of Nations to racialize Chinese women as migrant moral threats, leading to their deportation.

Julia Martinez, “A Female Slave Zone? Historical Constructions of Traffic in Asian Women,” Slaving Zones: Cultural Identities, Ideologies, and Institution in the Evolution of Global Slavery, ed. Jeff Flynn-Paul and Damian Alan Pargas (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 309–35.

Julia Martinez offers a masterful overview of the trade in women for domestic, affective, and sexual labor throughout the entire South East Asian region. She shows how international discourses within the League of Nations and subsequent regulations addressing trafficking “tended to be explicitly gendered and tacitly racialized” by their authors imagining Chinese women (and sometime Japanese women) as victims of an international trade. 

Jeanne Morefield, “‘Families of Mankind’: British Liberty, League Internationalism, and the Traffic in Women and Children,” History of European Ideas 46, no. 5 (2020): 681–96.

Examining the debates about trafficking within the League of Nations’ Committee on the Traffic of Women and Children, Jeanne Morefield explores how women were discussed in relation to a national “family” This discursive resulted in the League Committee’s support for more restrictive migration regimes that limited the mobility of single women.

Kazuhiro Oharazeki, Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018).

Using records scattered across Japan, Canada, and the United States, Kazuhiro Oharazeki successfully traces the history of Japanese sex workers selling sex in the Pacific Northwest, many of whom were trafficked and/or experienced debt bondage. He demonstrates the centrality of prostitution to transpacific labor migration and the development of Japanese gender systems and ethnic communities in the North American West. By tracing the transpacific connections and crossings, Oharazeki shows the connections sex laborers maintained with their home communities, how the money earned from intimate labor spanned the Pacific, and how women who sold sex responded to their economic (and sexual) exploitation.

Eva Payne, “Purifying the World: Americans and International Sexual Reform, 1865–1933” (PhD diss., Harvard University Press, 2017). 

Eva Payne shows the centrality of sexual reform and sexual governance to the United States’ “moral empire” in the early twentieth century. Looking at how American social reformers injected ideas of sexual respectability and restraint as markers of civilization, Payne tracks their influence on US foreign policy, military policy, and on the League of Nations.

Eva Payne, “Deportation as Rescue: White Saves, Women Reformers, and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration,” Journal of Women’s History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2021): forthcoming.

Eva Payne argues that the US Bureau of Immigration’s campaign against white slavery in the 1910s opened up opportunities for elite white women like Kate Waller Barrett to use their talents in the service of the state by reconfiguring deportation as a protective, rather than a punitive act to save putative victims of sex trafficking. 

David Petruccelli, “Pimps, Prostitutes and Policewomen: The Polish Women Police and the International Campaign against the Traffic in Women and Children between the World Wars,” Contemporary European History 24, no. 3 (August 2015): 333–50.

David Petruccelli contends that the anti-trafficking activities of the League of Nations and the international women’s movement offered Polish policewomen an argument to dramatically expand the sphere of their policing activities and authority over women who sold sex and to all poor female emigrants. 

Jessica R. Pliley, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). 

Though focused on US domestic anti-trafficking legislation, Jessica Pliley demonstrates that the origins of the United States’ White Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act) emerged from US anti-trafficking immigration law. Together, the White Slave Traffic Act and the immigration acts of 1903, 1907, 1910, and 1917 constructed a moral border around and throughout the United States and contributed to the growth of state power. 

Jessica Pliley, Robert Kramm, and Harald Fischer-Tiné, eds. Global Anti-Vice Activism, 1890–1950: Fighting Drinks, Drugs, and ‘Immorality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 

Global Anti-Vice Activism considers the ways that international campaigns against alcohol, narcotics, and sex trafficking played out in a variety of local sites. Bringing together scholars of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the United States, and India, this collection of essays features the work of thirteen historians grappling with the interconnectedness of global anti-vice campaigns and local imperatives. The sex trafficking section includes essays by Jessica Pliley on the FBI’s White Slavery Division of the 1910s in the United States, Stephen Legg on the League of Nations’ sex trafficking investigation in India, Elizabeth J. Remick on prostitution regulation in early twentieth-century China, and Robert Kramm’s essay on the policing of prostitution in US-occupied Japan and Korea after World War II. 

Jessica R. Pliley, “Ambivalent Abolitionist Legacies: The League of Nations’ Investigations into Sex Trafficking, 1927–1934,” in Fighting Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: History and Contemporary Policy, ed. Genevieve LeBaron, Jessica Pliley, and David Blight (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 97-118.

Jessica Pliley looks into the League of Nation’s two investigations of international sex trafficking conducted by the American Social Hygiene Association to interrogate how US paternalist abolitionism—emphasizing the abolision of legal prostitution, criminalization of the selling of sex, and the restriction of immigration—came to influence international considerations of sex trafficking during the interwar period. 

Christiana Schettini, “Between Rio’s Red-Light District and the League of Nations: Immigrants and Sex Work in 1920s Rio de Janeiro,” IRSH 62 (2017): 105–32.

Schettini looks at the social history of Mangue, a segregated vice neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, from the perspective of one migrant brothel madam—Fanny Galper—and from the point of view of the League of Nations’ investigation into sex trafficking. By connecting the personal (a madame) to the local (the segregated vice district of Mangue) and to the international (the League of Nations), Schettini examines the intersection between the international diffusion of sex trafficking policies and the racialized segregation and surveillance of sex work within a context of increasing European migration to Brazil.

Christiana Schettini, “South American Tours: Work Relations in the Entertainment Market in South America,” IRSH 57 (2012): 129–60. 

Schettini explores the lives of young European women working in the Brazilian and Argentine entertainment markets who were thought to be exploited by sex traffickers in order to uncover the working arrangements that offered these women opportunities to make money abroad.  Such work also made them vulnerable to exploitation. The article showcases the range of women’s work that fell under the white slavery umbrella and reveals the richness of those records in documenting the lives of proletariat migrants.

Caroline Séquin, “Prostitution and the Policing of Race in the French Atlantic, 1848–1947” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2019).

Looking closely at how the French Empire managed racial politics through prostitution policy, Caroline Séquin investigates three French Atlantic port cities—Fort-de-France (Martinique), Dakar (Senegal), and Bordeaux (metropolitan France)—to trace migration policy, mobilized soldiers, and migrating women who sold sex. Her careful analysis of the ways prostitution policy managed racial politics sheds light on the role of sexual governance in empire building. 

Caroline Séquin, “Marie Piquemal, the ‘Colonial Madam’: Brothel Prostitution, Migration, and the Making of Whiteness in Interwar Dakar, Journal of Women’s History 33, no. 4 (Winter 2021): forthcoming.

Using the story of Marie Piquemal, a white French woman who ran an elite brothel in interwar Dakar that catered to the growing population of French colonial administrators, Caroline Séquin shows the central role played by migrant white French women who sold sex and female affection in producing racial boundaries in an empire that claimed to be colorblind. 

Keely Stauter-Halsted, The Devil’s Chain: Prostitution and Social Control in Partitioned Poland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). 

Keely Stauter-Halsted contextualizes the white slavery panic over the sex trafficking of girls from Eastern Europe within a larger context of mass labor migration from Poland. This migration was subjected to imperial restrictions and nationalist pressures that made the need for intermediaries (labor brokers, migration brokers, and sex traffickers) necessary for emigration to succeed. Stauter-Halsted centers the experience of young Polish women who faced grinding poverty and searched of opportunities abroad. 

Christelle Taraud, “La réglementation de la prostitution, instrument de domination raciale,” in Histoire de l’Algérie à la période colonial, 416-418 (La Découverte, 2014). 

The construction of racial difference led the French authorities to develop prostitution management techniques after 1830 to control “indigenous” prostitution in colonial Algeria. Considering all Algerian women to be syphilitic prostitutes, French civilian and military officials used prostitution policy to control native women, while “protecting” the migrant soldiers in service to empire. 

Nancy M. Wingfield, The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 

In her chapter on white slavery, Nancy Wingfield addresses the response of the Austrian state and bourgeoise reform organizations to the white slavery hysteria. More significantly, she wrestles with the issue of migrants’ agency when she explores the relationship between traffickers and the trafficked to argue that “these girls and young women were not simply victims, but sometimes willing participants” in migrating for sex work.  

Mir Yarfitz, Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019)

Mir Yarfitz explores the world of the Varsovia Israelite Mutual Aid and Burial Society in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to document the transnational network of Eastern European Jews who trafficked women for sexual purposes throughout Europe and to the Americas. Embedding this transnational immigration story into the politics of Buenos Aires, a city that also experienced heavy rural to urban migration, allows Yarfitz to uncover the ways changing health regulations and penal reforms prompted Jews working in the sex trades to band together in order to “Hacer la América”—make it in America. 

Jessica R. Pliley


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