Abduction Fantasies, From the ‘White Slavery’ Panic to Liam Neeson Films

Contrary to fears of ‘stranger danger,’ most cases of child sexual abuse and assault happen ‘within your own community,’ says the host of ‘The Oldest Profession’ podcast.

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Actors Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace at a 'Taken 3' screening on January 7, 2015 at New York City. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Maybe this happens if you’re a guy, too. I don’t know. If you’re a woman and you use a restroom at the airport, chances are pretty good there will be a sign in the stall that says, basically: “Are you being trafficked? Here’s a number to call.”

This may seem like a public service, but in reality, it’s just the latest iteration of a long-held fantasy where white women are carted off to brothels by men of a different race or ethnicity, according to Kaytlin Bailey.

Ms. Bailey is founder and director of Old Pros, a nonprofit media organization devoted to changing the status of sex workers, and host of “The Oldest Profession” podcast. 

She also created and stars in “Whore’s Eye View,” a one-woman show that blasts through 10,000 years of history from a sex worker’s perspective. 

It’s a tour de force — funny, factual, and outrageous as it connects the dots from fertility goddesses to porn laws to bicycles to Liam Neeson movies, property rights, and religious rituals. 

Wait — Liam Neeson movies? I called up Ms. Bailey to walk me through this.

She starts in 1875.

That, she says, was the dawn of the “white slavery” panic: the fear that young white women were being kidnapped off the street and forced into prostitution. 

The Civil War had recently ended, the 13th Amendment had abolished slavery and the country was expanding westward. “So, you have your recently freed Black population, and you have an increase in immigration as steam travel gets faster and more accessible.” 

The rapidly evolving bicycle is upending society, too: Suddenly young people — women included — can venture far beyond their homes with little supervision.

In short: The country was starting to look different, and the federal government passed its first anti-prostitution law. 

But it was a generation later that things really came to a boil. The early 20th century was a time of intense immigration, urbanization and unprecedented mobility. Bicycle or not, young women were moving to the city, getting jobs, independence, even boyfriends. Hell’s bells. Next, they might even want to vote. 

In 1910 America passed the Mann Act, also known as the white slavery law. “This act criminalized transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes,” says Ms. Bailey. “It was sold to the American people as a way of protecting white women from the imminent threat of kidnapping” — presumably by an African American or immigrant. 

“But historians have looked at this, and there was never a time when white women were being plucked off the sidewalks and transported against their will.”

The ink wasn’t dry on the act before it was used against the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. When Johnson beat the white boxer James J. Jeffries, race riots broke out. That was 1910. 

By 1912, Johnson had been arrested for violating the Mann Act in a clearly racially motivated case. He was found guilty but escaped to France. 

His fame waned, but the Mann Act marched on, “used to inconvenience chorus girls on their way to the next gig, and to prosecute a lot of consensual extramarital relationships,” says Ms. Bailey.

And Liam Neeson…?

A century later, the same false narrative that inspired the Mann Act inspired the “Taken” movies, Ms. Bailey says. 

What’s the harm of a movie where an innocent white teen is captured by swarthy foreigners and auctioned off to Arab sheikhs? 

“This is what we think rape and sex assault and kidnapping look like,” Ms. Bailey says. That enduring fantasy points us in the wrong direction. “It has always been easier for us as a society, maybe as a species, to scapegoat strangers,” she says. “But the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse and assault happens within your own community.” 

Long story short: Stranger danger sells. It even works its way into law. Yet focusing on a fantasy doesn’t make real women or kids any safer. 


The New York Sun

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