Traffic in Souls: Are Women the Only Victims?

The 1913 film, Traffic in Souls, although infected with unintentional melodramatic humor, openly protests against the act of forced prostitution. Throughout the film, I could not help but wonder about human trafficking and if women and children were, and still are, the only victims of this horrific system. Yet again, I looked to television to answer my questions. On the history channel (one of my favorite channels to date) there is the series called Underground City. In one episode, the host traveled through underground tunnels in Portland, Oregon. He then proceeded to explain the act of Shanghaiing. The term itself was used to describe the act of kidnapping unsuspecting men, usually drunks in saloons, and forcing them into slave labor aboard merchant ships. These men were usually under the influence of alcohol or some other illegal substance like opium or cocaine, and when their mental faculties were wasted they were led to rooms with trap doors in the floor. Falling through the floor, the unsuspecting men would fall into cages. And if that wasn’t enough, they were then auctioned off to vessel owners and then used as slave labor.

This was a popular way of both finding labor to work aboard ships in the untamed waters but also a means of making extra cash. This episode also mentioned that many of these underground traps were in saloons, public laundry mats, and even barber shops. These areas, or  at least some of them, aren’t exactly “risky” areas. These places are pretty public and open. It shocked me to know that this type of stuff was going on during the mid 19th century. It’s actually quite scary and somewhat reminded me of Mr. Trubus (innocent on the outside but crooked on the out side).

Not to unsettle the feminist voices in this class or any other people reading the blog, but I think that this has just as much barring as the film Traffic in Souls. Dr. Stalter, mentioned in class today that she was writing an article about this. I think that this would be a cool addition to the article. I also think that it is really cool to see this from a non-feminist perspective. I don’t know about any of you but I tend to refer to everything in this manner.  Human trafficking, even when you google it, is pictured as a plague that seems to only affect women and young children, usually young girls. This topic is heavily feminized. Even I fell victim to thinking of this subject in terms of women in the city.

Human trafficking is naturally a scary topic. Thinking about it in terms of both the film and shanghaiing makes it seem a bit more urgent. The city to me before this very topic seemed like a bright, new world just waiting for lonely small town girls to arrive and reinvent themselves. Now, I’m scared straight in a sense. We have realize, like Sandburg, and the city is a dangerous place, and as inviting as it may seem like a jungle just waiting to swallow up unsuspecting prey.    



Filed under City Cultures

6 responses to “Traffic in Souls: Are Women the Only Victims?

  1. I’m glad that you opened up this topic to other dangers of city life. Sex trafficking was definitely not the only one. I went on a tour of Seattle that talked about similar places to those you mention in Portland. If this is something that interests you enough to do more research and writing, there is a classic book on the dangers of New York City in the “gaslight” period. It’s called Low Life: The Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante. It’s really fun to read.

  2. jester365

    I found myself intrigued by your blog post. It never crossed my mind to think of human trafficking as a multi-gendered crime. I suppose that comes from the thought that a man would be much harder to kidnap than a woman. I mean just the sheer strength of a man vs. the typical female is usually significant and would make more criminal choose the latter simple because of the effort they’d have to expend and chance of getting caught. Like you, my favorite channel is History and I’ve seen the episode of Underground Cities that you mentioned. Having thought about it, it does creep me out more now that I know I could be a victim as well.

  3. righteousmyer

    I think it’s silly to be scared of the city. It would make just as much sense to be scared of dying of malaria. Just because millions of people die from it every year doesn’t mean your chances are any higher. To be scared of the city is the ignore every good thing about the city and pay close attention to every bad thing in the city (and the good massively outweighs the bad).

    As far as men go, you’re right. They do seem to be less trafficked. One thing that comes to mind is the male “Impressment” into the Royal Navy in Great Britain from the 17th to early-19th century. In this system, men would be forced or tricked into joining the navy to fight for the British.

    One last thing! I saw on the internet the other day the amazing fact that even though slavery is abolished in all countries, “there are more slaves today than at any point in history, remaining as high as 12 million to 27 million”. Crazy.

  4. lbbk91311

    At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate and further feminizing sex trafficking here, I think it is important to consider “Traffic in Souls” as a product of “urban spectatorship” (Judith Walkowitz). Assuming that female sexual deviance was a result force rather than conscious choice, could be interpreted as an attempt by upper- and middle-class society to define, or justify, these behaviors.

    Patriarchal values and notions dominated how the rest of society viewed women: as fragile, submissive, naive, and intrinsically virtuous creatures. Therefore, when the behaviors of women began to contradict these ideas, rather than reevaluate them, society went in search of an excuse for this deviation. I imagine the thought process going something like this: Obviously, good girls don’t just up and leave their families to pursue corruption (in the city)…Which means…Ah HA!: They’re being forced against their will!

    I’m not completely insensitive (or ignorant): I know that many women (and men) are forced into prostitution, sex trafficking, and various other forms of duress. However, based on “Traffic in Souls” and Walkowitz’s discussion about prostitution and “urban spectatorship” in “City of Dreadful Delight,” I think this is a valid interpretation–one that should at least be considered, pondered upon, argued, scoffed at, etc.

    On a closing note: Classical cinema is notorious for casting women as the victim–of her own impulses, desires, physical and emotional weaknesses, etc; Laura Mulvey discusses this in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” It’s definitely worth reading. Also, I found some Silent Era Movie Posters ( ) that reflect how women tended to get victimized in films.

  5. thepurplegg

    While I tend to think of modern sex trafficking in terms of women and children, I know it happens to men as well. I did not know about the 19th century cages, so that can be filed under my new fact for the day. Of course, men are sold into slavery. In the United States, people of all ages were sold and bought in the slave trade. Men were valuable, like the unsuspecting men in the tunnels, because they could do hard labor. The sex trade industry is different because I think that does tend to demand women, and women are at risk in many societies. As far as I am aware, the numbers are skewed towards women; more women are sold into sex slavery than men, but that does not mean it is only women at risk.

  6. I’m so glad you pointed out that men are just as likely to be victims of similar crimes in the city. It seems that anyone who appears vulnerable is an easy target for anyone who’s on the prowl to take advantage of someone. This is why when I took self-defense, a major point of the class was to develop a certain mentality and attitude that changed the way we viewed ourselves, and as a result, changed the way we present and carry ourselves in public. Men may not have to worry about some of these things as much while walking the streets of a city, but they are not completely free of safety risks. I don’t remember what channel showed the story of this man, but it was the most bizarre survivor story I’d ever heard:
    I will say that I do believe if he was a woman, the outcomes would have been much, much different because of…well, a lot of reasons. But, it goes to show that there are actually people out there who will attempt to use others–male or female–in the most dehumanizing ways, if not but just for the sheer thrill of it.

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