The History Department hosted Kelli McCoy, history professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, for a lecture about the history of human trafficking during the Progressive Era on Oct. 22.

McCoy spoke to an audience of students and professors about how policymakers can better fight human trafficking today by rooting the discussion in the consciousness of the past. McCoy argued that society today looks at human trafficking as a new phenomenon, when it actually stems back incredibly far into the past.

McCoy relayed to the students that human trafficking became an issue of public discussion because allegations of trafficking had started to increase during the Progressive Era, a period of time that lasted in this country from the 1890s – 1920s; the culturally prevalent image was one of unchaperoned white women from rural areas being drugged, then brought to a brothel. In this culturally constructed narrative, the perpetrator was always male, and often portrayed as having recently immigrated to the United States.

Reaction against this “white slavery” on the federal level was a law called the Mann Act. This legislation prohibited the traveling of an unmarried couple across state lines for the purpose of engaging in “immoral behavior.” Underpinning this policy was the notion that men had uncontrolled sexual impulses and that women were incapable of giving consent to sexual activity.

Dr. McCoy said that by looking at the mistakes of the past, policymakers can lead a more successful movement in stopping human trafficking today. By looking to other factors, such as the victims’ socioeconomic circumstances, new policies can begin to address the source of the problem. Today’s efforts can also benefit from not relying on unhelpful stereotypes, especially the idea that human trafficking primarily involves sex work. Labor trafficking also makes up a great deal of the human trafficking that exists today.

Dr. McCoy is deeply invested in this subject, and its historical impact, specifically that of reform and women throughout history, and earned her PhD in 2012 with a focus on the Progressive Era.