International Agreement Targets White Slave Trade Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ratification of the International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic marked the first coordinated international effort to attack involuntary prostitution.

Summary of Event

Involuntary prostitution, which came to be known as white slavery in the late nineteenth century, is an enduring phenomenon in human history. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an increasing assault on this aspect of human society, and the 1904 Paris Conference on the White Slave Trade Paris Conference on the White Slave Trade was the first internationally coordinated attempt by governments to suppress human trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation. White slavery Prostitution Human trafficking International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic [kw]International Agreement Targets White Slave Trade (May 18, 1904) [kw]White Slave Trade, International Agreement Targets (May 18, 1904) [kw]Slave Trade, International Agreement Targets White (May 18, 1904) [kw]Trade, International Agreement Targets White Slave (May 18, 1904) White slavery Prostitution Human trafficking International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic [g]France;May 18, 1904: International Agreement Targets White Slave Trade[01050] [c]Women’s issues;May 18, 1904: International Agreement Targets White Slave Trade[01050] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 18, 1904: International Agreement Targets White Slave Trade[01050] Coote, William Alexander Stead, William Thomas Butler, Josephine

During the early and mid-nineteenth century, many nations took measures to regulate the practice of prostitution. The two major motives for this were the desire to keep under control a practice regarded as immoral but impossible to suppress and the wish to prevent the spread of venereal disease. Typically, prostitutes were required to dwell in certain districts of their cities, to register with their local governments, and to submit to periodic medical examinations. They commonly lived in licensed brothels. Prostitution was monitored by special police, often plainclothes officers, many of whom were corrupt. The system usually failed to regulate all prostitutes, and, as time passed, resistance to the system grew from several quarters.

Although some women entered prostitution because of poverty and a lack of legitimate employment opportunities, others became prostitutes because of the sexual mores of the period. Many middle- and upper-class women who had been seduced into sexual relationships considered themselves ruined afterward and believed that they could not return to their families. This drove them into prostitution to survive. Others were tricked, trapped, or kidnapped into prostitution. The fear of venereal disease led to a high demand for virginal prostitutes. To meet this demand, pimps, procurers, and brothel keepers used a variety of methods to entice or entrap young women into a life of prostitution. Some women were ensnared by offers of marriage or of jobs in seemingly proper households. Another method involved placing job offers at employment agencies that found work abroad for women. Once the woman arrived at their place of work, they discovered that they had been deceived, but then it was usually too late for them to escape. Sometimes these women were forced to purchase various items, such as clothing, at the “workplace” and then were forced to stay in the brothel to work off the resulting debts.

Often the procurers’ methods involved transporting women between nations (or between states in the United States), because this made it more difficult for the women to escape. This transportation, which became known as the white slave trade or traffic, was fairly widespread in the nineteenth century. Because of the corruption of its morals police, Belgium was a center for this traffic. The king of Belgium himself reportedly spent more than eighteen hundred pounds a year importing British girls from British procuresses.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the American and European public become more aware of this traffic, and activists began an assault on the regulation of prostitution and on the white slave trade. One early leader of this movement was Josephine Butler, an upper-class British woman who became involved in social work with prostitutes in the mid-1860’s. She played a major part in the fight to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, which was at the core of Britain’s regulation system. While upholding the goal of marriage, Butler argued that society was wasting the talents of many women who were unable to find husbands. She asserted that they were forced into prostitution to survive because the structure of industrialized society prevented them from gaining employment. She argued further that these women should not be punished while their clients went untouched.

Butler’s efforts led to the foundation in 1875 of the British and Continental Federation for the Abolishment of Government Regulation of Prostitution. British and Continental Federation for the Abolishment of Government Regulation of Prostitution Soon afterward, she became involved in the battle against child and involuntary prostitution. At the instigation of publisher Alfred Dyer, she wrote a pamphlet, A Letter to the Mothers of England, Letter to the Mothers of England, A (Butler) assailing the white slave traffic between England and Belgium, which she blamed on Belgium’s corrupt regulatory system and the failure of British laws to protect young women. (The age of consent in Britain at the time was thirteen years.) Butler’s activism led to an investigation that resulted in the conviction of many agents of the Belgian morals police but few lasting results.

In 1885, the editor of the evening newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead, entered the fight against white slavery. The early efforts of Butler and others led him to investigate the problem, and with the help of Butler and the Salvation Army, he formed a secret investigation committee. The committee’s inquiry culminated when Stead, with the aid of a reformed procuress named Rebecca Jarret, staged a procuration to demonstrate that it was quite possible to carry off young girls to the Continent for immoral purposes without being caught or prevented from doing so. Beginning on July 6, 1885, Stead published in the Pall Mall Gazette a six-part series that revealed the results of the committee’s investigations under the title “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” Stead himself was arrested because of legal complications arising from the demonstration procuration he had arranged, and his series produced a massive public outcry that led to the passage of a bill raising the age of consent to sixteen years. Stead also helped found the British National Vigilance Association for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, British National Vigilance Association for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic which, under the leadership of William Alexander Coote, became important in moving the battle against white slavery to the international level.

After several years of effort as the secretary of the British National Vigilance Association, Coote became frustrated with the meagerness of the results the organization had achieved while acting alone. The association’s success increased after 1898, when Coote was inspired to found cooperating vigilance associations in all of the nations plagued by the white slave trade. He realized that, as the trade was international, cooperation between nations would be required to destroy it. His efforts led to the calling of the International Congress on the White Slave Traffic International Congress on the White Slave Traffic in 1899 in London and to the foundation of vigilance associations in many nations. These organizations and Coote’s continuing work led the French government in turn to invite sixteen nations to send delegates to Paris on July 25, 1902, to formulate an international agreement to fight the white slave trade. Thirty-six delegates represented the sixteen nations at the conference. After deliberating for five days, they hammered out a nine-article agreement. Thirteen nations (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) ratified the agreement on May 18, 1904. Austria-Hungary, Brazil, and the United States later ratified the agreement.

The International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic called for the signatory nations to take a variety of measures. Five of its articles detailed concrete actions to be carried out. Article 1 provided for the establishment of national authorities that would coordinate information regarding the white slave trade. Article 2 arranged the keeping of watch over railway stations, ports, and similar locations for the purpose of intercepting white slave traffickers and preventing procuration in these sites. Article 3 provided for investigations to discover the places of origin of foreign prostitutes in the signatory nations (to aid in their eventual repatriation) and for governmental assistance in repatriation. Article 4 dealt with funding repatriation. Article 6 concerned the supervision of agencies that sought to provide employment abroad for women. The agreement thus provided the first international framework for the battle against white slavery.


The International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic led to additional international conventions, congresses, and agreements. A conference held in Spain in 1910 produced an agreement that procurement of women under twenty years old would be considered a criminal act under any conditions, and that for women twenty or older, procuration was illegal if fraud or violence was involved. After its founding, the League of Nations League of Nations entered the battle, raising the age of consent to twenty-one and in 1921 organizing a system for monitoring international employment agencies. Further agreements were made in the years to follow, including the amendment of the 1904 agreement by the United Nations in 1949.

Such international agreements often proved difficult to enforce, as they depended on the willingness and capability of the signatory nations to carry them out. To some extent, private organizations took up some of the work and duties set forth in the agreements. Groups such as the International Catholic Associations for Railway Station Work, Les Amies de la Jeune Fille, and various national vigilance associations did their part to ensure that the agreements were carried out.

During the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, public awareness of the existence of white slavery mounted. In the United States, this led to a veritable white slavery panic. Numerous books were published on the subject and several laws were passed, such as the 1910 Mann Act, Mann Act (1910) which made it a crime to transport a woman across a state line “for immoral purposes.” The United States also proclaimed its adherence to the 1904 agreement. The public hysteria produced a reaction that sought either to deny the existence of the white slave trade or to show its occurrence to be less common than reformers claimed.

The traffic in women did decline as the twentieth century progressed. The decrease in licensed prostitution and the end of regulatory systems helped to bring about a change in the methods of recruiting used in prostitution, which in turn contributed to a reduction in the traffic in women. The actual enforcement of the agreements also helped, to a lesser extent, to bring about a decline in the white slave traffic.

Another important factor in the decline of the white slave traffic was the increasing liberation of women in the twentieth century. Women became better educated and more liberated in the area of sexual mores. Better education left them less vulnerable to the tricks of white slave traffickers, and freer sexual mores helped to create a decline in the demand for prostitutes and an increase in the proportion of prostitutes who chose their profession voluntarily. Economic necessity and inducements remained important factors in recruitment to prostitution, but deception, coercion, and international transportation declined in importance.

Although involuntary prostitution has long been a part of human society, the twentieth century witnessed its significant decline. With the abolition of regulation systems, the international cooperation arising from the agreement of 1904 and the treaties that followed it, and the increasing liberation of women, white slavery ceased to be a matter of great public concern and decreased markedly in occurrence. The International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic was, however, only the beginning of the international assault on the sex trade. These efforts continued into the twenty-first century, as human rights groups worked to combat the trafficking in women and children that still flourished in many parts of the world. In 2000, the United Nations Crime Commission opened a new Trafficking Protocol, which, together with the 2003 U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, included provisions to combat these invidious practices. White slavery Prostitution Human trafficking International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Ernest A., et al. Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls. Chicago: L. H. Walter, 1911. A typical example of the propaganda employed by anti-white slavery reformers in the United States during the early twentieth century. Includes a chapter by William A. Coote discussing the 1904 agreement, one of its most useful features for a contemporary reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie L. Bullough. The History of Prostitution. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1964. Discusses the history of prostitution from its origins to the early 1960’s. At the time of its writing, few serious histories of prostitution had been undertaken. Includes bibliography, endnotes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Women and Prostitution: A Social History. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1987. Discusses the history of prostitution from its origins to the mid-1980’s. Notes the importance of the sexual double standard in the persistence of prostitution. Includes an excellent chapter on the history of the movements against government regulation of prostitution and white slavery. Includes bibliography, endnotes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Decker, John F. Prostitution: Regulation and Control. Littleton, Colo.: Fred B. Rothman, 1979. A study of the various methods used through history to regulate or control prostitution. Provides a primarily legal rather than historical perspective. Includes index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donovan, Brian. White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-vice Activism, 1887-1917. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Focuses on how the movement to end white slavery contributed to the creation of a racial hierarchy in the United States. Analyzes reformers’ use of “us versus them” narratives to clarify and enforce racial boundaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grittner, Frederick K. White Slavery: Myth, Ideology, and American Law. New York: Garland, 1990. Ably discusses the perception of white slavery by the American public from the nineteenth century to 1985. Shows how and why perceptions of the existence of white slavery grew in the early twentieth century and culminated in the white slavery panic of 1909-1914, the focus of this work. Includes index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niemoeller, Adolph Fredrick. Sexual Slavery in America. New York: Panurge Press, 1935. Surveys the many forms of sexual slavery that have existed since ancient times, with primary emphasis on their occurrence in the United States. Devotes an entire chapter to the structure and history of white slavery and the movements against it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Also includes the texts of several relevant laws and treaties, including the text of the 1904 agreement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharp, Ingrid, and Jane Jordan, eds. Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns: Diseases of the Body Politic. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. A set of comprehensive materials covering Butler’s campaigns that places her work in historical context. Includes reset versions of pamphlets, books, media responses to Butler’s activities, letters to newspapers, articles from newspapers and other periodicals, and private letters both to and from Butler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, Signed at Paris on 18 May 1904 Amended by the Protocol Signed at Lake Success New York, 4 May 1949. Lake Success, N.Y.: Author, 1950. This is the actual text of the agreement signed in 1904 in Paris as modified after the creation of the United Nations. It also lists those who actually signed the treaty in 1904. The changes from the 1904 text are slight.

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