April Haynes is visiting LSE to research the origins of campaigns against sex trafficking in the 18th and 19th century Atlantic World and the perspectives of the ‘intimate laborers’ who constituted the UK’s mobile service labor force, past and present.
Human trafficking is one of today’s most pressing social problems. It also presents significant issues for economic and historical analysis. The International Labour Organization has estimated that forced labor generates $150.3 billion globally each year. Workers from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa create much of this wealth, $98.7 billion of which flows to the richest countries in North America, East Asia, and Europe. Most of the 21 million people forced to labor work in household service and agriculture. Nevertheless, politicians and non-governmental organizations focus disproportionately on sex trafficking.
Programs aimed at rescuing ‘sex trafficking victims’ (a label often misapplied to anyone suspected of selling sex) have become magnets for political support and financial investment. During the 2010s, religious organizations such as the Santa Marta Group, feminist agencies like the European Women’s Lobby, and state actors from the Trump administration to the Duterte government leveraged promises of rescue to garner political victories. The policies that resulted, such as the US Fight Online Sex Tracking Act (FOSTA), have largely failed to meet the needs of affected workers.
How has this happened? Immigration restrictions have combined with employment discrimination to push people into the shadows, facilitating a global trade in forced sexual labor valued at $99 billion annually. Where sex work has been criminalized, travel corporations have gained lucrative government contracts to execute mass deportations. NGOs have garnered funding streams for ‘appropriate’ job placement—usually in the service sector—for trafficking survivors. Meanwhile, governments reap the rewards of remittances sent by workers who earn wages for service labor of all kinds. The anthropologist Sine Plambech describes this matrix of moralism, politics, and profit as a ‘trafficking industrial complex,’ made up of the intertwined rescue, facilitation, deportation and remittance economies.
My research explores the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century origins of this complex. American and British reformers formulated the concept of sex trafficking in the context of Atlantic slavery. Formerly enslaved Black abolitionists recounted horrific experiences with forced sexual and reproductive labor. The stories shocked some white reformers into antislavery activism, but others appropriated the language of sexual slavery for use in white-dominated crusades for moral reform.
Equating ‘prostitution’ with slavery, moral reformers made it their business to place young women into household service in order to ‘reclaim’ them. Children in the streets during school hours who were not serving an employer also became targets for placement under the auspices of ‘prevention.’ Reformers organized institutions, secured corporate charters, and invested public and private money to move hundreds of thousands of workers during the first half of the nineteenth century. These benevolent organizations financed banks, real estate, and infrastructure projects.
Proponents justified these measures by circulating stories of white women and girls abducted to brothels in Atlantic port cities. In reality, the workers they transported were more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and even gender than their rhetoric suggested. Various actors declared they would rescue women from an ‘abominable traffic’ in sex; instead they established a racialized and gendered service sector. By the 1850s, US and UK governments supported such philanthropic people-moving schemes as alternatives to traditional poor relief methods and as efficient means of settling colonies.
This tender traffic (my phrase for the coerced movement of service workers under the auspices of sexual protection) presaged today’s trafficking industrial complex and contributed to the persistent international economic disparities on which it is based. Yet from the 1790s to the present day, the workers affected by this tender traffic have also persistently articulated their own visions of economic value and justice. For example, service workers in 1830s New York asserted that their labor was valuable because it was socially necessary. They also recognized that it was economically necessary. The male-dominated trade union movement of the nineteenth-century US claimed that the ‘productive’ labor of craftsmen created the value of commodities for exchange.
But intimate labor—coerced and chosen services including the care of households, bodies, and emotions—enabled trade to flourish. Service workers staffed the inns and brothels, boardinghouses and family dwellings where sailors and merchants paid for cooking, cleaning, and sexual services. Valuing labor only in terms of the production of commodities for market excluded large groups of workers—especially immigrant and formerly enslaved women, their children, and other marginalized persons—from sharing the benefits of the economic growth that their labor helped to make possible.
Intimate laborers contended for higher wages, increased respect, and greater autonomy by invoking what I call an intimate labor theory of value. In recent decades, intimate laborers have organized the Domestic Workers’ Alliance, Damayan, RedTraSex, and other organizations to fight exploitation and produce knowledge about their work on their own terms.
While a Visiting Fellow in Economic History at LSE, I plan to conduct research on nineteenth-century Ladies Emigration Societies, which facilitated the migration of British women to service positions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—often under the promise of protection from ‘survival prostitution.’ These initiatives emerged from a transatlantic network of antislavery activists, moral reformers, and penologists who exchanged ideas, data, resources, and people. I will explore the records and correspondence of British abolitionist, reform and rescue societies from the London Magdalen Asylum to the London Society for the Protection of Young Females. The papers of philanthropists such as Caroline Chisholm, Sophia Twining, and Sophia de Morgan can illuminate the business of Ladies’ Emigration Societies, as well as points of connection to movements for the reform of prisons, carceral transportation, and poor laws. In the process, I hope to encounter the perspectives of the intimate laborers who have constituted the UK’s mobile service labor force, past and present.
A major part of my fellowship, funded by the Mellon Foundation, will involve learning to apply the Economic History methods and interpretive frameworks to what has until now been a project of Social and Cultural history.