The Vice Trust: A Reinterpretation of the White Slavery Scare in the United States, 1907-1917

During the white slavery scare of the Progressive era, American reformers intertwined the story of the sexually coerced maiden with a heated condemnation of the business of vice. Economic allusions permeated the rhetoric of anti-vice reform, but three metaphors in particular anchored reformers' representation of social relations in urban red-light districts. The first metaphor depicted the business of vice as a trust composed of allied interests. The second metaphor was that red-light districts were like marketplaces where the Vice Trust bought and sold prostitutes to fill district brothels. And finally, contemporary writers correlated white slavery with debt peonage. By shifting the rhetorical terrain away from sin and individual salvation and toward an economic analysis of urban culture, American anti-vice reformers appropriated laws governing commerce as a new set of legal referents and strategically employed the three interlocking metaphors as juridical analogies for constructing legislation and interpreting the laws that regulated vice. Anti-monopolism was not the only discourse urban reformers used during the white slavery scare---traces of abolitionist rhetoric, evangelical exhortations, nativist captivity narratives, and social hygiene education were also present---but the shared commercial critique explains how a diverse group of reformers could unite into a culturally cohesive movement with a powerful legislative agenda.