Narratives of Sexual Consent and Coercion: Forced Prostitution Trials in Progressive-Era New York City


  • Tori Barnes-Brus is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Cornell College.

  • This research was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship and a General Research Grant from the University of Kansas Center for Research.

Brian Donovan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at


This article analyzes testimony about forced prostitution voiced in New York City's Court of General Sessions from 1908 to 1915. During these years, the problem of coercive prostitution—commonly called “white slavery”—received an unprecedented amount of attention from journalists, politicians, and antivice activists. Drawing from verbatim transcripts of compulsory-prostitution trials, our research examines the relationship between cultural narratives and courtroom storytelling. We show how the white slavery narrative in popular culture oriented prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and jurors in prostitution trials. Extending the account of social control in the sociological literature on antivice activism, our analysis shows that the prosecution of forced prostitution was not simply a top-down exercise of juridical power. Using insights from conversation analysis and cultural history, an examination of compulsory-prostitution cases reveals a quadripartite storytelling process where judges and jurors—with different orientations to the white slavery narrative—played a constitutive role in how the defense and prosecution argued their cases.