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Sex, Work and the Law: Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in Modern History


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Julia Laite
  • Assessment: a 2000-3000-word critical/reflective learning journal (20%) and a 5000-word research essay (80%)

Module description

The oldest profession. The Social Evil. The White Slave Trade. A feminist minefield. Modern Slavery. Work. These are just some of the ways that prostitution and trafficking have been described in modern history.

This module will explore the different ways that prostitution, sexual labour and sex trafficking have been defined since 1850, and will examine the different social, cultural, legal and political responses to these troubling but ever-present social questions. We will consider tricky historical issues: how do historians learn about and write about sexual labour and sexual exploitation in the past? Was prostitution work or was prostitution violence, and what happens when we have evidence it was both? What can past ‘solutions’ - laws and policies - to the problem of prostitution and trafficking tell us about those societies that implemented them, and what might they offer us when thinking about responses to prostitution in the contemporary period? How might the history of commercial sex and sexual exploitation interact with the politics of sex work in the present day?

Focusing on Britain, Europe, the United States and their empires in the period after 1850, but using examples from other regions and time periods as well, this module will examine the challenging history of an important social phenomenon.

Indicative module syllabus

  • The Oldest Profession? Historiographical introduction and pre-modern prostitution
  • Selling sex, buying sex, studying sex: social research on prostitution in the modern era and historical methodologies
  •  Making Vice Safe: regulated systems and their opponents in Britain, Europe and beyond 1850-c.1918
  • Prudes and Progressives: the transnational drive to repress prostitution and rescue prostitutes
  • Militarism, Imperialism and the Global Sex Industry
  • ‘White Slavery’ and ‘The Immoral Traffic’: new languages of exploitation and crime in the era of internationalism
  • Travel Stories: case studies and microhistories of women and sexual labour in the early twentieth century
  • ‘Modern Tarts’: re-defining prostitution in post-war Britain
  • Pimps, Traffickers and Border Control: sexual labour, migration and crime in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century
  • Carceral Feminists and Revolting Whores: new campaigns and the present-day politics of prostitution

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • be able to engage with present and historical debates on prostitution and trafficking
  • be able to reflect critically on the historiographical and theoretical field
  • be familiar with the history of these phenomenon and the responses to them around the world in the modern period.