White Slave Trade Sex Films

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A look at the first feature-length sex films in America and the Victorian (yes, you read that right, Victorian) reactions to them.

The first American feature-length sex film was Traffic in Souls (1913) (aka While New York Sleeps).

Made in 1913, Traffic was a "photo-drama" expose of white slavery. As a the turn of the century production, the director, George Loane Tucker, treads the line between sexpolitation and public service message. As the film guides viewers through various dens of iniquity in New York City, which certainly has provocative footage, the story includes the processes of crime detection, and the mandated climax of pure values as the police work to bust the white slavery rackets.

Traffic In Souls Movie Poster At the time of its release, the motion picture was controversial in many ways. Obviously, there was the whole issue of its daring to address prostitution and sex. And while the nervous producers did much to bill this as a warning message to citizens, a 'true crime' vice film, the advertisements promised steamy sex.

Due to the advertisements & the content of the film itself, there were obscenity charges & ensuing problems, of course, but perhaps more important, was the public reaction.

This was not only due to 1913, and Victorian era thinking, for film was a new medium & 'new' brings its own issues.

There was much concern as to the role of film in lives of Americans. Full length films signaled the end of the Nickelodeon, and the beginning of, well, who knew what. Of major concern was the film viewer itself. While the Nickelodeon was for men and boys, if motion pictures were to survive, they would need the approval of women.

With Traffic, worlds collide.

As DeeDee at Sex-Kitten writes in her review of Movie-Struck Girls: Women & Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon (by Shelley Stamp):

In the early 1900's, the most popular films were vice films, & in the teens, a major societal concern was The White Slave Trade. Sensational white slave films were made during this time, to warn folks of the dangers to their women. Conflicting with the as-billed-educational-films messages, cinemas brought women-folk out into public where they could easily fall prey to such ills as the white slave trade. Debate centered around the irony. Other debate focused on the films themselves, and censorship issues were raised. And to make matters worse, women seemed to enjoy such films! Oh, how could such tender beings watch & enjoy such lewd filth such as scenes from brothels?!

Victorian purity meets a changing culture head-on with the new medium of film. Culturally, the film stood as point of debate. Historically, we know what happened, and the dialogues which continue. As a film, Traffic in Souls was one of the first films to prove that 'sex sells' and it served as a tipping point, encouraging, with its sales, more films like it.

After Traffic there would be more shocking 'truth' films with the same theme of the horrors of prostitution -- with all the same combination of message, melodrama and sexploitation. These films include The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (also in 1913), Damaged Goods (1914) and The Sex Lure (aka The Girl Who Did Not Care, 1916).

In fact, the trend continues today, with Lifetime's miniseries, Human Trafficking. But this conversation over today's historical parallels in sex, obscenity, and alarming the public, well, I'll leave that to others.

If all of this intrigues you, and how can it not, you may also be interested in reading Mother of Truth by Ivan Abramson. Mother of Truth, subtitled "A Story of Romance and Retribution Based on the Events of My Own Life", was published in 1929 and is fiction by director Abramson. Abramson was a Russian born film director and writer of over 56 Hollywood films, including many pre-code productions such as The Sex Lure. While fiction, Mother of Truth is fascinating reading for fans of film.

Silent Porn Star, where the collector is anonymous, but sex history is not.


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