Define: White Slavery

White Slavery
White Slavery
Quick Summary of White Slavery

The act of coercing someone into prostitution is known as white slavery, which predominantly affects females but can also impact males. This practice is illegal and referred to as trafficking, with the Mann Act specifically prohibiting the act of forcing individuals into white slavery.

What is the dictionary definition of White Slavery?
Dictionary Definition of White Slavery

White slavery is the act of compelling a woman (or occasionally a man) into engaging in commercial prostitution. This practice is illegal and is explicitly prohibited by the Mann Act (18 USCA §§ 2421–2424). For instance, a young woman may be deceived with the promise of a job in a foreign country, only to be coerced into prostitution upon arrival by her traffickers. She is then held against her will and subjected to physical and emotional abuse. This example serves to demonstrate how white slavery entails the manipulation and exploitation of individuals for the purpose of prostitution. Victims are often enticed with false assurances and subsequently trapped in a situation where they have no autonomy over their own lives. Such actions constitute human trafficking and represent a grave violation of human rights.

Full Definition Of White Slavery

White slavery, also known as the white slave trade, refers to the historical phenomenon of the enslavement and trafficking of Europeans, particularly women and children, primarily for sexual exploitation. This overview aims to delve into the origins, development, and eventual decline of white slavery, highlighting its impact on European societies and the broader implications for modern understandings of human trafficking.

Origins and Historical Context

The term “white slavery” emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the practice itself can be traced back much further. Historical instances of white slavery include the capture and enslavement of Europeans by Barbary pirates, who operated along the North African coast from the 16th to the 19th centuries. These pirates raided coastal towns in Europe, capturing men, women, and children to be sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East.

The Barbary Corsairs

The Barbary Corsairs were infamous for their raids on European coastal towns and shipping lanes. They captured thousands of Europeans, often subjecting them to brutal conditions and forced labour. The impact on European societies was significant, leading to the depopulation of coastal areas and a pervasive fear of pirate attacks. The term “white slavery” was not commonly used during this period, but the enslavement of Europeans was a well-documented aspect of the Barbary pirate activities.

Eastern European Enslavement

Another notable instance of white slavery occurred in Eastern Europe, particularly involving the capture and enslavement of Slavic peoples by the Ottoman Empire. The word “slave” itself is derived from “slave,” reflecting the prevalence of Slavic slaves in mediaeval and early modern times. The Crimean Khanate, allied with the Ottoman Empire, conducted raids into Eastern Europe, capturing slaves who were then sold in markets throughout the Ottoman territories.

The 19th Century and the Rise of the White Slave Trade

In the 19th century, the term “white slavery” became more widely recognised, particularly in relation to the trafficking of European women and children for prostitution. This period saw a heightened awareness and moral panic regarding the exploitation of women, particularly in the context of urbanisation and industrialisation, which created conditions conducive to the exploitation of vulnerable individuals.

Prostitution and Trafficking

The rapid growth of cities and the consequent social dislocation led to an increase in prostitution and the exploitation of women. Many women, often from rural areas, were lured to cities with promises of legitimate employment, only to find themselves forced into prostitution. The trafficking networks that facilitated this exploitation were sophisticated and often involved international cooperation.

Public Awareness and Moral Panic

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a surge in public awareness and moral panic surrounding white slavery. This was partly fuelled by sensationalist journalism and literature, which often exaggerated the extent of the problem but nonetheless highlighted the real and horrifying experiences of many women. Campaigns to combat white slavery gained momentum, led by social reformers and organisations dedicated to protecting women and children.

Legislative and International Responses

The growing awareness and concern about white slavery led to significant legislative and international efforts to combat the practice. These efforts were aimed at both preventing the trafficking of women and children and punishing those involved in the trade.

The United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the issue of white slavery was brought to the forefront by social reformers such as Josephine Butler, who campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which she argued indirectly promoted the exploitation of women. Butler’s activism helped to bring about the repeal of these acts and increased public awareness of the plight of trafficked women.

The International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic

One of the most significant international responses was the International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, signed in 1904. This agreement, one of the first international treaties to address human trafficking, aimed to coordinate efforts among signatory countries to combat the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. It marked a significant step towards international cooperation in addressing the issue.

Decline and Legacy

The decline of white slavery in the mid-20th century can be attributed to several factors, including improved law enforcement, greater public awareness, and social changes that reduced the vulnerability of women and children to exploitation. However, the legacy of white slavery continues to influence contemporary discussions about human trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable populations.

Post-World War II Developments

After World War II, significant social and economic changes contributed to the decline of white slavery. The war itself disrupted many of the trafficking networks, and the subsequent social reforms and economic recovery in Europe reduced the conditions that had previously made exploitation more likely. Additionally, the establishment of more robust legal frameworks and international agreements further curtailed the trafficking of women and children.

Modern Implications

The historical phenomenon of white slavery has left a lasting impact on contemporary understandings of human trafficking. Modern anti-trafficking efforts often draw on the lessons learned from the fight against white slavery, particularly the importance of international cooperation and the need for comprehensive legal and social measures to protect vulnerable individuals.

Continued Challenges

Despite the progress made, human trafficking remains a significant global issue, with many of the same dynamics that characterised white slavery still present today. The exploitation of vulnerable populations, particularly women and children, continues in various forms, including forced labour, sexual exploitation, and domestic servitude. Modern anti-trafficking initiatives must therefore continue to adapt and evolve to address these ongoing challenges.


The history of white slavery is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has had a profound impact on European societies and the broader global context of human trafficking. From the raids of Barbary pirates to the trafficking networks of the 19th and early 20th centuries, white slavery has left an indelible mark on the historical record. The legislative and international responses to white slavery laid the groundwork for modern anti-trafficking efforts, highlighting the importance of coordinated action and robust legal frameworks in combating the exploitation of vulnerable individuals.

Understanding the history of white slavery is crucial for comprehending the continuing challenges of human trafficking today. By examining the past, we can better appreciate the progress made and the work that still needs to be done to protect those at risk of exploitation and ensure that the horrors of white slavery are never repeated.

White Slavery FAQ'S

No, white slavery, also known as the trafficking of white individuals for forced labor or sexual exploitation, is not a prevalent issue in modern times. Human trafficking affects people of all races and ethnicities, and efforts are made to combat this crime globally.

White slavery is not a recognized legal term. The term historically referred to the forced prostitution or labor of white women, but it is now considered outdated and inappropriate. Modern laws address human trafficking and forced labor regardless of the victim’s race.

There are no specific laws against white slavery, as the term is no longer used in legal contexts. However, laws against human trafficking and forced labor apply to all individuals, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Engaging in human trafficking or forced labor, regardless of the victim’s race, can lead to severe penalties. Penalties vary depending on the jurisdiction, but they often include imprisonment, fines, and asset forfeiture.

If you suspect any form of human trafficking or forced labor, including cases involving white individuals, you should report it to the appropriate authorities. In many countries, there are dedicated hotlines and organisations that specialize in combating human trafficking.

While there are no organisations specifically dedicated to addressing white slavery, numerous organisations work to combat human trafficking and forced labor globally. These organisations focus on protecting all victims, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Yes, individuals of any race can be victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a crime that affects people from all backgrounds, and it is important to recognize and address this issue without focusing solely on race.

The signs of human trafficking and forced labor are similar regardless of the victim’s race. These signs may include restricted movement, signs of physical or emotional abuse, lack of personal identification documents, and being controlled by others.

Support services are available for all victims of human trafficking, regardless of their race. These services may include shelter, medical assistance, counseling, legal aid, and assistance with reintegration into society.

You can contribute to the fight against human trafficking by raising awareness, supporting organisations that combat this crime, reporting any suspected cases to the authorities, and advocating for stronger laws and policies to prevent and address human trafficking.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 26th May 2024.

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