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Women's International Activism on Trafficking and Prostitution

By Stephanie Limoncelli

Loyola Marymount University


   Among the many important and well-known causes that spurred women's international activism in the late 1800s, there is one often overlooked catalyst: prostitution. Beginning in 1875, women from England initiated a movement to combat the state regulation of prostitution that quickly grew to include other countries in Europe and the Americas, as well as colonial areas in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Known as abolitionists, a name inspired by the earlier movement to abolish black slavery, they argued that prostitution was an ongoing form of slavery for women and children, and they fought against systems of state-regulated prostitution in metropolitan and colonial areas as well as the movement of women and children into such systems. With its international scope and a dual focus on the exploitation of women in domestic as well as migrant prostitution, women's early international activism on trafficking and prostitution grappled with a variety of philosophical and practical difficulties and dilemmas, some of which have reemerged today.

   The first international voluntary association to organize around the issue of prostitution was the British, Continental and General Federation for the Abolition of the Government Regulation of Vice, later known as the International Abolitionist Federation (IAF), which was founded by the English Christian and feminist reformer Josephine Butler.[1] Beginning with campaigns in England and on the continent,[2] this voluntary association also helped to organize supporters in colonial and mandated areas such as India, the Dutch East Indies, and Egypt.[3] IAF supporters included an assortment of women, from feminists who became active in other international women's organizations such as the International Council of Women and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to religious reformers such as Quakers and Unitarians, to female medical doctors.[4] IAF also gained the assistance of liberal politicians, working-class men and socialists, male doctors, lawyers, and professors.

   The IAF's campaigns were centered on the abolition of state-regulated prostitution around the world. Regulation, a byproduct of militarization and colonization in the 1800s, typically involved some combination of licensing or tolerating brothels in certain geographic areas, registering women as prostitutes, enforcing compulsory medical exams of women in prostitution, placing women in lock-hospitals when they were found to be suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases, and designating oversight of such systems by local police. Abolitionists called attention to the many types of abuse that took place under the auspices of regulation, from police corruption that led to the registration of underage girls, to forced registrations of local or migrant women, administrative as well as physical barriers for women who wanted to leave prostitution, and collusion in practices that kept women in debt bondage or in otherwise exploitative brothel conditions. In addition to these concerns, abolitionists also objected to regulation because of the restrictions that these systems placed on the basic freedoms of women in prostitution, such as the right to voluntary medical examination and treatment, and unrestricted movement, and they vehemently opposed the double standard of sexual morality reinforced by the policing and control of women's bodies.

   Women's international activism on trafficking and prostitution worked toward a worldwide goal of abolition, but like other efforts to promote a global agenda based on gender, the movement struggled to incorporate diverse class and ethnonational perspectives and participants. This was a task made all the more challenging in the context of ongoing colonialism and imperialism. Though the IAF's organizational statutes specified that it was independent of any political party, philosophical school or religious creed, and the abolitionists welcomed collaboration with non-European men and women in colonial areas, the European dominance of the IAF persisted over time. The IAF headquarters moved from London to Geneva in 1898, and a concern about the "white slave trade," by which the abolitionists meant European women in regulated prostitution, remained a major focus of the organization and of feminists more generally. While reformers also addressed the regulation and movement of non-European women for prostitution in and between colonial areas, it took some time before the phrase "traffic in women," which was widely used by the interwar period, supplanted the earlier terminology.[5]

   IAF also struggled, in its early stages, with gaining agreement from all of its chapters about the goal of abolition in both European metropolitan and colonial areas. Some, often upper-class and aristocratic women in European countries, were willing to reform regulation, believing that this would lead to more control of prostitution, less health risks for men purchasing sex, and increased safety for "virtuous" women who might otherwise be unknowingly infected with sexually transmitted diseases by their husbands or attacked by men unable to control their sexual urges. One such English woman, Lady Henry Somerset, was the first vice-president of the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union and she proposed to reform rather than abolish regulation in India. She met with firm opposition by Butler and her supporters, who reiterated the goal of abolition, as they did with German, Swiss-German, Belgian and New Zealand women in the movement.[6] IAF activists were especially consistent on this point long after Butler died in 1906, and they continued this stance well into the interwar period.

   The above examples point to some difficulties that women experienced from inside the movement to combat trafficking and regulated prostitution, but they also faced many external barriers. At a time when women were excluded from public life and did not have even the right to vote in countries around the world, there were many people opposed to the idea of women openly discussing issues involving sexuality. Women who did so were not only privately and publicly reprimanded by others, but they also faced police repression in many countries where they attempted to organize to address issues of trafficking and prostitution. Women's activism was also openly thwarted by proponents of state regulation, and by a male-led international movement of "purity reformers" who did not see eye to eye with the abolitionists on the need to protect the individual rights of women in prostitution and who were not averse to suppressive measures that harmed prostitutes. In metropolitan areas abolitionists' "laissez faire" ideas about prostitution were understood to be a threat to state authority, and in colonial and mandated areas, they were not infrequently seen as a threat to colonial order.

   Scholars are only now beginning to research the history of the IAF and its reception as abolitionists extended their efforts around the world.[7] We know that the IAF held frequent international congresses.[8] We know from historians studying IAF's diffusion to Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, that there were very active sections in the latter three countries.[9] We also know that the IAF had volunteers, supporters, and sometimes even paid staff in places as diverse as Argentina, Egypt, South Africa, and Japan, but much more research is needed to uncover IAF-related activities on the ground in local areas, including the interactions between IAF and local reformers.[10] A growing body of work on the history of prostitution in metropolitan and colonial areas will hopefully continue to provide new insights for historians interested in women's international activism on trafficking and prostitution, its ethnonational and class dynamics and power struggles, and its complicity or challenges to empire.

   There is also growing interest in women's international activism on trafficking and prostitution in formal institutional settings, including the League of Nations and the United Nations. At the League of Nations in the interwar period, feminist abolitionists from a variety of women's organizations represented by G. Avril de St. Croix of France fought against regulation supporters in the League's Traffic in Women and Children's Committee, which was charged with collecting information on trafficking from member countries and administering the League's anti-trafficking conventions.[11] They also participated in the development of anti-trafficking conventions, fought to expand the definition of trafficking to include the third-party exploitation of prostitution, opposed the criminalization of women in prostitution, resisted efforts to forcibly repatriate women in prostitution, and fought to protect the right of women to migrate freely.[12] While they had some success in expanding the definition of trafficking and in persuading state officials to study and confirm connections between state regulation and trafficking, state delegates at the League of Nations were often more interested in policing rather than protecting women in prostitution.

   After World War II, women again sought to address trafficking and prostitution as they re-emerged as issues at the United Nations, but by this time, regulation was moribund and most state officials believed that migrant prostitution had waned. While trafficking and prostitution periodically reappeared on the international agenda, it was not until the 1990s, with the intensification of globalization, the fall of state socialism, increased international migration and the growth of the international sex trade that they became a focus of persistent concern.[13] Women then again began organizing internationally on issues of trafficking and prostitution.

   Some questions persist: How should trafficking be defined? Does the regulation of prostitution prevent or facilitate trafficking? Is prostitution always exploitative of women? Does police oversight of prostitution encourage the abuse of women in prostitution or help to prevent it? Women's international activism today is divided by the answers to these questions. Some feminists adopt a neo-abolitionist perspective, emphasizing the harms of prostitution and the connections between the normalization of prostitution as "sex work" and the traffic in women. To redress the gender-based inequalities of prostitution, they also often advocate the criminalization of demand, a position that Butler and the IAF opposed historically.[14] Other feminists critique anti-trafficking efforts for treating women in prostitution as victims rather than individuals exercising agency; for conflating trafficking and prostitution, and for failing to advocate for safe migration and freedom of choice for women who want to work in the sex industry.[15] While women in the global north and the global south have come together to form networks and nongovernmental organizations that have taken positions on both sides of this divide, and the voices of women in prostitution have now been included, the debates continue. Perhaps as we learn more about the history of women's international activism on trafficking and prostitution, contemporary activists can reflect on and learn from the achievements and limitations of the reformers who came before them.



[1] Josephine Elizabeth Grey Butler, Josephine Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir, edited by George William Johnson and Lucy A. Johnson, 2nd ed. (Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1911).

Josephine Butler, Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (1896).

Marion Holmes, Josephine Butler: A Cameo Life-Sketch (1911).

[2]Josephine E. Butler, The Revival and Extension of the Abolitionist Cause: A Letter to the Members of the Ladies' National Association (1887).

Josephine Elizabeth Grey Butler and International Abolitionist Federation, The New Abolitionists: A Narrative of a Year's Work: Being an Account of the Mission Undertaken to the Continent of Europe by Mrs. Josephine E. Butler, and of the Events Subsequent Thereupon (1876).

Josephine Butler, Une Voix dans le Désert (1905).

Auguste de Morsier, Congrès de Lyon, 1901: La Police des Moeurs en France et la Campagne Abolitionniste (1901).

[3] British Committee of the International Abolitionist Federation, State Regulation of Vice in the British Empire (London: British Committee of the International Abolitionist Federation, 1907).

International Federation for the Abolition of State Regulation of Vice, British Committee, Our Army in India and Regulation of Vice. Correspondence between the India Office and the British Committee of the International Abolitionist Federation on the Rules, Regulations and Practice in Indian Cantonments with Regard to Prostitution and Disease, Oct. 1909-Oct. 1912 (1912).

[4] Report on the Quinquennial Meeting; Rapport de l'assemblée Quinquennale; Bericht Über Die Generalversammlung, Kristiania 1920,, ed. by Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, Hon. President of the I.C.W. (1921).

Report on the Quinquennial Meeting, Vienna 1930, ed. by The Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, President of the I.C.W. (1930).

International Council of Women, Birth of the International Council of Women (ICW): First International Women's Conference, Washington, D.C., 1888 (Brussels, Belgium: International Council of Women, 1957).

[5] A quick search for "traffic in women" reveals more than three hundred instances of the use of the phrase, with at least 58 titles of documents in the database using the phrase.

[6] Dr. Katharine Bushnell and Mrs. Elizabeth Andrew, Reply of Dr. Katharine Bushnell and Mrs. Elizabeth Andrew to Certain Statements in a Published Letter Addressed by Lady Henry Somerset to a Correspondent on the Regulation of Vice in India (1897).

[7] Anne Summers, "Introduction: the International Abolitionist Federation," Women's History Review, 17:2 (2008): 149-52.

[8] Bureau International de la Fédération, Prostitution Réglementée et Hygiène: Rapports Présentés au Congrès de la Fédération Abolitionniste Internationale, Paris, Juin 1913 (Genève: Bureau International de la Fédération, 1914).

International Federation for the Abolition of State Regulation of Vice, Report of the Portsmouth Conference, June 15-18, 1914 (London: British Branch of the International Abolitionist Federation, 1914).

[9] See the special issue "Gender, Religion, and Politics: Josephine Butler's Campaigns in International Perspective (1879-1959)," Women's History Review, 17:2 (2008).

[10] Angel M. Giménez and International Abolitionist Federation. La Lucha Contra la Reglamentación de la Prostitución Publicación de la Federación Abolicionista Internacional De Ginebra (1931).

Paulina Luisi, Bases y Propósitos de la Federación Abolicionista Internacional Palabras Pronunciadas en 1a Asamblea de la Sección Argentina, Verificada el día 27 de Febrero de 1919 (1919).

Paulina Luisi, Plan y Métodos de Enseñanza Sexual (1920).

Paulina Luisi, Una Vergüenza Social: la Reglamentación de la Prostitución: Conferencia Leída en la Asociación Cristiana de Jóvenes de Buenos Aires el 13 de Octubre de 1918, (1919).

Anna Pappritz and Katharina Scheven. Die positiven Aufgaben und strafrechtlichen Forderungen der Föderation (1909): 34.

[11] League of Nations, Summary of Annual Reports for 1922 Received from Governments Related to the Traffic in Women and Children, by the League of Nations (1924). Also see LON summary of annual reports for 1923-1944-45.

[12] Branche Anglaise de la Fédération Abolitionniste Internationale, La Rapatriation Obligatoire des Prostituées: Pressant et Important! = Zwangsweise Heimbeförderung von Ausländischen Prostituierten: Bringlich und Wichtig! = Compulsory Repatriation of Prostitutes: Urgent and Important! (London: Branche Anglaise de la Fédération Abolitionniste Internationale, 1931).

[13] United Nations. Economic and Social Council, 59th Session, Agenda Item 5: International Women's Year, Note by the Secretary General (United Nations, 1975).

Jane Garland Katz, et al., Rights of Women: A Guide to the Most Important United Nations Treaties on Women's Human Rights (1998).

[14] Equality Now, Equality Now: Annual Report 2008 (2008). See also, e.g., their 1998-1999, 2000, and 2001 reports.

[15] Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World (2007).

Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women, Human Rights in Practice: A Guide to Assist Trafficked Women and Children (1999).