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"This Modern Day Slavery": Sex Trafficking and Moral Panic in the United Kingdom

  • Author(s): Hill, Angela
  • Advisor(s): Constable, Marianne
  • et al.

The dissertation analyzes the discourse and development of the British anti-sex trafficking movement. Following the European Union's largest expansion in 2004, the United Kingdom experienced a surge in immigration from Eastern Europe, which was greeted by fears about losing British culture, stolen jobs, and rising criminal activity. From this welter of concerns, I argue, the issue of sex trafficking coalesced into a moral panic about the dangers of immigration and the sexual exploitation of women. Using qualitative research and discourse analysis, I examine the movement's depiction of the trafficking victim and its reliance on punitive policing and anti-immigration policies. Although anti-trafficking advocates claim the abolition of the African slave trade as their historical precedent, I contend that the conceptual roots of contemporary discourse lie in the white slavery panic of the Victorian era. Today's description of the trafficked woman as young, naïve, and Eastern European recalls the figure of the white slave at the same time that it demonizes migrant sex workers who do not fit the feminized and culturally-bound profile of helpless victim.

This analysis of the United Kingdom's response to a changing demographic landscape reveals how a reaction can define the phenomenon to which it ostensibly refers. In other words, the anti-trafficking campaign produces its opposing object, "sex trafficking," by delimiting the discursive field and determining the appropriate course of defensive action. In light of the political and economic crises wracking post-millennial Britain, the realm recast itself as a hostile environment for sex trafficking and inaugurated a series of unprecedented policing measures and prostitution policy shifts. To interrogate these events I perform a contrapuntal reading that troubles both the conceptual basis of the anti-trafficking movement and its legal and tactical operations. Through this analysis, my dissertation reveals that the anti-trafficking campaign is not a reaction to the sexual traffic in women; it is part of a larger socio-legal response to Eastern Europeans seeking access to the United Kingdom as full members of the European Union. This project constitutes an expansion and repositioning of studies of sex work and migration, offering a specific analysis of the British context while emphasizing the intersection between standardized narratives and cultural ruptures.

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