Posted on 3 June 2013 in decolonisation, gender, migration, social rights

The Traffic in Women: Gender, Mobility, and Migration Control in the Twentieth Century World

Professor Julia Laite


There is immense popular and academic interest in sex trafficking in the twenty first century, in an era marked by mass labour migration and economic and gender inequality. The phenomenon of sex trafficking–and concerns about it–have a very long history. Yet historians up until now have not provided the social sciences with any in-depth historical account of how the development of the globalized economy and the rise in working women’s migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was related to sexual trafficking and migrant prostitution. While there has been some work on the construction of migration barriers and anti-trafficking policy, we are missing any long-duree sense of the influence and outcomes of these measures.

This project will develop a transnational history of ‘sex trafficking’ in the early twentieth century. I will look at the discourses surrounding sex trafficking and examine how they helped to generate national and international frameworks for the control and surveillance of women’s migration. More significantly, I will explore how migrant women themselves experienced their marginalized and illicit migration, and how they navigated surveillance and migration restriction. This project will take as its intellectual starting point the idea that sex trafficking cannot be studied as a phenomenon separate from women’s migrant labour more generally, and that sex trafficking, as part of the story of globalization, has a very significant history before 1945.

The primary academic output for this project will be a book that will be aimed both at historians, social scientists, interested lay readers, and those involved in public policy. The project is interdisciplinary, and will set the history of sex trafficking within a broader sociological and social policy context. Its aim is to significantly challenge incumbent ideas and policy practices regarding the use of immigration control and anti-trafficking measures, making it controversial and important research.

Julia Laite ISRF

Julia Laite is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London. She researches and teaches on the history of women, crime, sexuality and migration in the 19th and 20th century British world. Her latest book,The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A true story of sex, crime, and the meaning of justice (Profile, 2021) won the Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction and the Bert Roth Award for New Zealand Labour History.

Julia was also awarded an ISRF Mid-Career Fellowship in 2022.


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