DR JULIA LAITE

THE TRAFFIC IN WOMEN: GENDER, MOBILITY, AND MIGRATION CONTROL IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY WORLD
EARLY CAREER FELLOW: OCTOBER 2014 – SEPTEMBER 2015
Julia Laite

Julia arrived at Birkbeck in 2009 as a lecturer in Modern British History, after teaching in Canada and holding a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill University.

She is interested in the kinds of people who were once thought of as ‘invisible’ in history, and is theoretically and methodologically fascinated by the ways that historians might learn about their lives and experiences.

Julia’s ISRF project aims to develop a transnational history of ‘sex trafficking’ in the early twentieth century. She will look at the discourses surrounding sex trafficking and examine how they helped to generate national and international frameworks for the control and surveillance of women’s migration, as well as exploring how migrant women themselves experienced their marginalized and illicit migration, and how they navigated surveillance and migration restriction.

Abstract

There is immense popular and academic interest in sex trafficking in the twenty first century, in an era marked by mass labour migration and economic and gender inequality. The phenomenon of sex trafficking–and concerns about it–have a very long history. Yet historians up until now have not provided the social sciences with any in-depth historical account of how the development of the globalized economy and the rise in working women’s migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was related to sexual trafficking and migrant prostitution. While there has been some work on the construction of migration barriers and anti-trafficking policy, we are missing any long-duree sense of the influence and outcomes of these measures.

This project will develop a transnational history of ‘sex trafficking’ in the early twentieth century. I will look at the discourses surrounding sex trafficking and examine how they helped to generate national and international frameworks for the control and surveillance of women’s migration. More significantly, I will explore how migrant women themselves experienced their marginalized and illicit migration, and how they navigated surveillance and migration restriction. This project will take as its intellectual starting point the idea that sex trafficking cannot be studied as a phenomenon separate from women’s migrant labour more generally, and that sex trafficking, as part of the story of globalization, has a very significant history before 1945.

The primary academic output for this project will be a book that will be aimed both at historians, social scientists, interested lay readers, and those involved in public policy. The project is interdisciplinary, and will set the history of sex trafficking within a broader sociological and social policy context. Its aim is to significantly challenge incumbent ideas and policy practices regarding the use of immigration control and anti-trafficking measures, making it controversial and important research.

The Research Idea

This project will develop a transnational history of ‘sex trafficking’ in the early twentieth century. Firstly, I want to contribute to the social history of women’s migration by studying women who migrated for sexual labour, and to explore the ways that gender affected the experience of illegal or marginalized migration. I will examine sexual labour, alongside domestic labour, as ‘reproductive’ labour in the globalizing economy, and determine what specific migration patterns developed in this period. Secondly, I will look at the discourses surrounding sex trafficking–tied up as they were with ideas about gender, nationality, and race–and will examine how they helped to generate national and international frameworks for the control and surveillance of women’s migration. Finally, I will explore how the social history of women’s marginalized labour migration and the intellectual, political, and legal history of sex trafficking interacted through the lived experiences of migrant women. How did women who migrated for sexual or other marginal or illicit labour experience anti-trafficking measures? Could these experiences of migration restriction and surveillance render them vulnerable to exploitation? How did migrant women navigate immigration restriction? I will produce a social history of women’s marginalized migrant labour in the early twentieth century that breaks down the boundaries that separate sexual labour from other kinds of potentially exploited labour and blurs the lines that have divided sex trafficking from human trafficking more generally. Most importantly, I want to place women’s experiences of these permeable boundaries at the centre of the historical project.

The Focus

There is an immense interest in sex trafficking that has arisen, uncoincidentally, in a period that has witnessed unprecedented human migration. In popular culture, it appears frequently in newspapers, books, films and documentaries. It is also a pressing concern for national governments, international organizations, as well as the UN. Academic research on sex trafficking is growing. The topic, in all of these cases, has been the subject of much debate. Is all trafficking ‘modern slavery’? Is all prostitution ‘violence against women’? Are all women who migrate for sexual labour victims? What are the best measures to prevent trafficking?

At the heart of these controversies lie some extremely important and difficult policy questions: How do we reconcile accounts of rational choice and voluntary migration with the victimization that is readily apparent in sexual trafficking? How can we protect all migrant workers from exploitation in a world that on the one hand erects politically expedient barriers to legal migration and, on the other, has constructed an economy that is crucially dependent upon often undocumented, low paid, highly mobile labour?

The problem of trafficking requires significantly more historical perspective than we have at present. Historical scholarship is eminently placed to illuminate the way that incumbent theories and policies, often thought to be new, modern, or innovative, are often reiterations of older initiatives and reflect entrenched attitudes. History can also demonstrate the long-term effects of social policies and laws and enable social scientists and policy makers to formulate more effective responses to the problem.

Background

Sex trafficking is a major area of research in the fields of criminology, economics, sociology, anthropology, and law (see for instance Doezema, 2010; Lee, 2007; Kara, 2010), but most social scientists tend to see it as a very modern phenomenon, part of the globalization of the post-war world. Some historians have explored the feminist campaigns against ‘white slavery’ in the interwar years, or have placed prostitution in an international or imperial context (Limoncelli, 2010; Lapannen, 2007; Plilley, 2010; Levine, 2003), and others have explored the issue of gender and illegal migration (Shrover et al, 2009). There are studies on Mui Tsai in Hong Kong, military brothels in Korea, and internal migrant sex-work in India (Pomphret, 2008; Soh, 2009; Legg, 2012). One narrative history looks at an individual trafficker (Van Onselen, 2007). However, we are lacking a transnational social history of sex trafficking, especially one that links the discourse and policies surrounding sex trafficking with the historical experience of migrant women.

Historians up until now have not provided the social sciences with any in-depth historical account of how the development of the globalized economy and the rise in working women’s migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contributed to the phenomenon of sexual trafficking and migrant prostitution. While there has been some work on the construction of migration barriers and anti-trafficking policy, we are missing any long-duree sense of the influence of these measures on trafficking and the way in which they affected the lives of migrant female workers.

Theory & Evidence Base

This project will take as its intellectual starting point the idea that sex trafficking cannot be studied as a phenomenon separate from women’s migrant labour more generally, and that sex trafficking, as part of the story of globalization, has a very significant history before 1945. I will develop careful definitions of ‘marginal’, ‘illicit’ ,‘exploitable’ and ‘exploited’ labour, and recognize that women’s low-skilled migrant labour might not neatly fit into predefined categories. I hope to challenge incumbent theories that neatly define migrant sex workers as ‘victims’ and which paint the phenomenon of sex trafficking in oversimplified terms. Here, feminist theories of agency, choice, and constraint will be very useful in reading my sources, as well as theories of ‘forced’, ‘coerced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration. While race and nationality will be major categories of analysis here, gender and class will be the central focus.

I also want to turn a critical historical gaze on the development of anti-trafficking policy and immigration law. While we have some idea of how anti-trafficking measures developed, there is a tendency to stop our enquiries there. I will work with theories about the growth of the transnational state, globalization, and the construction of citizenship in order to gain a better sense of how these legal measures were enforced, and how this enforcement affected the experiences of migrant women. Finally, I hope to explicitly engage with theories and methodologies of public history and interdisciplinarity, and explore the role history might play in the development of policy.

Methodology

In the early twentieth century the Atlantic World was a major locus of migration and trafficking and I will therefore root the project in a comparative and transnational project focused upon Britain and France. These two countries not only had very different state approaches to the question of trafficking, but they also experienced significant migration exchanges–with British women working in France and French women working in Britain. In addition, both nations had significant migration and trafficking networks within their past and contemporary empires, and I will use these networks to determine where further research might go. Potential routes of migration–and sites of transnational trafficking control–would be Canada, Argentina, and North Africa. I am fluent in both English and French which will facilitate this research. I will use the archives of newly formed state immigration departments; police, court, and domestic government records; the papers of anti-trafficking and rescue organizations, as well as the League of Nations archive in Geneva. I will read the texts against the grain, and will be setting case studies of marginalized migrant female workers–caught up within the discourse and/or the reality of sexual trafficking–within a wider socio-political context of feminist campaigns, national immigration laws, and international efforts to monitor and curb the traffic in persons. Because sources for these experience in the past are limited, I will use the work of sociologists and anthropologists on migration and sexual labour in the present day to help explore the possible contours of women’s experiences in the past.

Output

The primary academic output for this project will be a book that will be aimed both at historians and social scientists but which will also be written to interest the non-specialist, including the interested public and those involved in social policy. I have an ongoing commitment to public history and I see this project as very much furthering this engagement. The research for the book would be undertaken in the main during the period of the early career fellowship, with writing up and publication to follow over the following two years.

In addition to the book I intend to produce two academic journal articles during the period of the fellowship. One will be an extensive theoretically based literature review, examining sex trafficking as a phenomenon linked to the long-duree history of globalization. The other will use case studies to explore some of the complexities of applying the new anti-trafficking clauses in the British Aliens Act of 1905 and the ‘White Slave Act’ of 1912 to real-life migration scenarios. I also intend to contribue to policy debates through engaging with the media.

Because compiling a global history of sex trafficking clearly necessitates more than one scholar, I will work during the year of the fellowship toward developing a research network that can be supported by further funding in the future (i.e. the Leverhulme Trust International Networks scheme). This will involve designing a website to help gather together scholars working in the field, and also hosting a conference on the subject.

Relevance

Policy makers and popular media display a significant historical amnesia when talking about sex trafficking, and very little historical research has been done. I feel that to address this question properly we are in need of interdisciplinary historical research that engages with present-day social sciences as well as present-day social policy. In this, the project is very much in line with the goals of the ISRF.

I will also seek to explain an important historical irony: that sex trafficking played no small role in encouraging governments to levy migration restrictions while all the while these migration restrictions were one of the most significant causes of sex trafficking and trafficking more generally. By contrast most government-funded research tends to take a firmly radical feminist stance that is also in line with morally conservative and religiously affiliated organizations, and which emphasizes the victimhood of women who migrated for sex and defines all prostitution as violence against women. This perspective has been extremely influential in the development of prostitution law, and anti-trafficking policy tends to take the form of restrictive immigration control, repatriation, and ‘rehabilitation’. We are in need of research that highlights the long term effect of immigration law as encouraging human trafficking and/or increasing the vulnerability of migrants;and that questions the fundamental definitions of sex trafficking used to construct current policy. Because my research seeks to question the very basis of anti-trafficking policy and immigration control, it is controversial and potentially unlikely to attract other kinds of funding.

A list of project-related outputs will be added here.