Prostitution and White Slave Films: Moral Dangers in the Most Popular Genre of Early Cinema

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Before World War I, white slave films thrilled and frightened audiences by exposing the perils of prostitution and dangers of the white slave trade.

Prostitution and “white slave” films were the most popular genre of early cinema. From the beginning of the twentieth century to the start of World War I, hundreds of white slave films thrilled and frightened audiences by demonstrating the perils of prostitution and dangers of the white slave trade.

New York City’s White Slavery Connection

Especially in New York City, people would have been very familiar with so-called white slavery—the human trafficking of white women by foreign men, who forced them into prostitution. Newspapers drummed up shocking stories about brothels full of fallen women and the pervasiveness of prostitution in the Gilded Age.

New York was then the capital of the film industry, both in film production and in the population of moviegoers: at least 225,000 children and adults went to the movies every week. The incredible popularity of white slave films was virtually assured in the sensation-hungry city.

The white slave films may have had roots in two United States laws. In 1896, the Chinese Exclusion Act attempted to limit the number of Chinese immigrants in New York by allowing only male workers to immigrate; some suspicious whites then spread alarmist rumors about these Chinese men allegedly kidnapping and raping white women. Then, Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910, which forbade men from taking women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Unfortunately movie audiences’ imaginations were easily stoked by these racist laws.

Two Illustrative Films

Two white slave films of this era, produced in New York, were extremely popular. The first feature-length white slavery film, A Traffic in Souls (1913) was a fictional story—presented as social commentary with unmistakable moral undertones—of a young woman who, with the help of her police officer fiancé, tries to rescue her naïve sister from the clutches of a white slave racket run by a prominent philanthropist. A Traffic in Souls played at 28 theaters in New York and grossed $450,000.

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic was even more sensational. The 1913 documentary-style morality tale purported to show viewers the sinister lengths to which trafficking in women could go. Audiences saw actresses victimized by “drugged drinks, taxicab abductions, the machinations of professional procurers, the interior of brothels, the daily life of a cadet, and the life-story of a ‘typical White Slave’,” according to the New York Times.

White Slave Film Fans Riot

A few days after its sold-out premier at New York’s Park Theater, public-morals officers raided the venue and seized the film reels. A crowd of five hundred angry women rushed toward the door, waving the green tickets they had purchased for the 9:30 PM screening. More police on horseback were called in to quell the disturbance, but word of the raid spread up and down Broadway. Soon a throng of several thousand amassed at the theater and protested the shutout, but dispersed when the police reserves were summoned.

A few days later, an injunction was issued sparing the Park Theater from police harassment, but the reprieve would be short-lived. A State Supreme Court Justice ordered the theater closed, despite the argument from the attorney representing the Inside of the White Slave Traffic, who said “several well-known women and physicians had seen the white slave pictures and decided they were a good thing for the community.”

In response to the controversy, the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures devised a set of guidelines for censoring sex and violence in the movies, putting an end to the white slave films.

Sources:

  1. New York Times, “White Slavery on Film; Audience Sees Various Alleged Methods of the Traffickers,” December 9, 1913.
  2. New York Times, “Park Theatre Shut On Court Order,” December 27, 1913.