White Slavery in the Northwoods: Early U.S. Anti-Sex Trafficking and Its Continuing Relevance to Trafficking Reform

42 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2015 Last revised: 7 Apr 2017

See all articles by Bonnie J. Shucha

Bonnie J. Shucha

University of Wisconsin Law School

Date Written: October 21, 2015


This article provides a unique and comprehensive analysis of the first U.S. anti-sex trafficking movement and its continuing impact on trafficking reform today. It explores the significant, yet little known campaign against the trade of young, white women, a practice called "white slavery," which emerged in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Michigan in the 1880s. It examines the strategies developed by these late nineteenth-century activists, specifically the use of exaggeration and sensationalism, and demonstrates how trafficking reformers are still using these techniques today despite their dubious authority and effectiveness. Part I will consider why the Northwoods became a focal point for white slavery in the nineteenth-century, specifically exploring the impact of the economic, demographic, and social changes occurring in the region at that time, as well as the role of the burgeoning mass media. It will also examine the escalating nature of the Northwoods white slavery allegations and the public outcry that they caused. Next, it will study the strategies developed by anti-trafficking activists, specifically the use of exaggeration and sensationalism to garner support. Finally, it will investigate Wisconsin's and Michigan's responses to white slavery and consider why this nineteenth-century campaign failed to generate the level of national law reform achieved by later anti-trafficking movements. Part II will attempt to glean some truth about the existence and extent of prostitution and sex trafficking in the Northwoods in the nineteenth-century, specifically acknowledging that many historians now believe that white slavery was a myth. It will conclude with a demonstration of how the exaggeration and sensationalism strategies developed by nineteenth-century anti-trafficking activists are still being used today and an inquiry into whether or not such techniques encourage effective law reform.

Keywords: sex trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution, white slavery, Wisconsin, Michigan, Midwest, Northwoods, nineteenth century, anti-trafficking, trafficking reform, law reform, mass media

JEL Classification: K42

Suggested Citation

Shucha, Bonnie J., White Slavery in the Northwoods: Early U.S. Anti-Sex Trafficking and Its Continuing Relevance to Trafficking Reform (October 21, 2015). 23 William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law 75 (2016), Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1365, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2677445

Bonnie J. Shucha (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

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