It was just over two weeks ago that the most sensational story of the year hit the headlines: slaves had been found in London.
A London detective inspector, Kevin Hyland, informed the world that ‘we have never seen anything of this magnitude before’. The UK home secretary, Theresa May, echoed his sentiments and said she would make tackling modern-day slavery her top priority. She said there was ‘one positive’ to the case of the south London slave house: the public had finally become aware of the issue of slavery, which, according to May, continues to have a ‘shocking presence in modern Britain’. By this time, claims that thousands of people in Britain were being held in conditions of ‘slavery’ were circulating in the media.
Detective inspector Hyland may not have seen ‘anything of this magnitude’ before - but the fact is that what he saw, or imagined he saw, was a fantasy of slavery rather than the grim reality of forced servitude. Indeed, the story of the south London slaves rapidly unravelled. Early reports hinted at a heroic rescue mission involving detailed planning and up to 40 police operatives. But within a few days it became evident that the three ‘slaves’ were not slaves as we have traditionally understood that term. Certainly they were not physically held against their will. Contrary to early media reports, which suggested the three women had been imprisoned in a house for 30 years, later accounts revealed that they went outdoors to run errands and had access to telephones and a television.
As the initial story of forced imprisonment became difficult to sustain, the narrative of scaremongering shifted - now focusing on the psychological and emotional horrors the women allegedly suffered. Suddenly, the image of the iron collar and chains used by slave-owners gave way to talk of ‘invisible handcuffs’. From this point on, the promoters of this urban legend about modern-day slavery argued that what is really significant about this hitherto unrecognised crime is not what can be seen by the naked eye but rather the often ‘invisible’ problem of mental enslavement. These are slaves who are not physically chained into a life of servitude, but rather are wrapped up in ‘emotional chains’ by their psychologically manipulative captors. ‘Brainwashed’ became the term most commonly used by campaigners spreading myths about an epidemic of ‘slavery’.
Predictably, the authors of this urban legend could draw on an army of experts to explain the subtle and sophisticated art of mental slavery. One Australian trauma expert, Michael Burge, said he wasn’t surprised that the ‘imprisoned’ women had access to a phone and television and had ‘some controlled freedom’. He said mental manipulation often leads to a more insidious form of slavery than physical control and domination. A term like mental manipulation can transform even normal features of human life – such as being in an unpleasant relationship or feeling pressured to do something – into something akin to criminal domination. Such an exercise in rhetorical acrobatics allows campaigners to expand the number of ‘invisible slaves’.