Skip to main content

“I Can Be Big Sister, Even If You Can’t Be Big Brother:” Spectatorship and Punishment in Anti-trafficking Efforts

Abstract

Anti-human trafficking efforts by both state and non-state actors are proliferating across the United States (US). While there is ostensibly some merit in widespread awareness to generate social change, the reality is that the majority of these efforts rely on and support the violence of the carceral state. Using interviews with anti-trafficking stakeholders in the Midwestern US, I argue that anti-trafficking efforts depend on the policing of particular notions of criminality, femininity, sexuality, and victimhood that foster an environment where carceral measures are the only solutions to the exploitation of trafficking. Weaving together key theories from critical trafficking studies (Hill 2016; Kempadoo 2015; Musto 2016; Shih 2016; Srikantiah 2007) and penal spectatorship (Brown 2009), I argue that justice cannot exist in current punishment-centered approaches to ending human trafficking. A more expansive, structurally founded concept of accountability and recourse, not imprisonment (Davis 2003), is necessary to truly stop human trafficking and to meet the needs of trafficked persons in ethical ways.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    The irony of this was not lost on Twitter. Hotels are known sites of labor exploitation and labor trafficking (Owens et al. 2014; Zhang et al. 2014). The trafficked people at Marriott thus may not be the sex workers this training seeks to identify but housekeepers and janitorial staffers who are employees of Marriott.

  2. 2.

    The proliferation of these efforts is often attributed to the authority of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and its subsequent distribution of global aid. Published annually by the US Department of State, the TIP Report ranks all countries based on how well they adhere to the US’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). In addition to the general concerns of using a US standard to assess non-US countries and the lack of transparency in its methodology (Merry 2016), the TIP Report has been critiqued for employing a tiered structure to benefit global allies or punish countries for their political engagements with the US (Wooditch 2011). In addition, the TIP Report promotes stereotypical depictions of victimhood that do not reflect the complex realities of trafficking worldwide (Wilson and O’Brien 2016).

  3. 3.

    Given the tight-knit anti-trafficking communities across this two-state region, I did not ask about participants’ age, citizenship status, gender, race or other demographic categories. I did allow them to include their self-defined region (e.g., urban, suburban, rural), but that information is not relevant for this article. The added layer of protection for participants does limit the extent to which I can make claims about the connections between frontline workers’ identities and their clients’ identities. When I refer to interviewees using a gendered pronoun, this reflects an assumption based on self-references.

  4. 4.

    For more information about my larger research project and these data, see Schwarz (2019).

  5. 5.

    Trafficking risk factors and identification markers are not without concern. Not every person exhibiting these indicators faces human trafficking, and the gendered and raced values that shape the creation of these factors are not neutral (Kempadoo 2015; Shih 2016). As Hanni Stoklosa and colleagues (2017): 123) explain in their analysis of healthcare-based identification protocols, “There may be some indicators that are empirically linked to increased HT victimization but are so common in certain patient populations that they lead to excessive HT screening—such as signs of physical or sexual abuse.” Indicators may help identify trafficked persons, but they may also serve to target people unfairly, especially those experiencing housing insecurity, mental illness, precarious citizenship, or domestic violence.

  6. 6.

    Though this degree of conflation may seem surprising, it reflects a particular, religiously influenced narrative of human trafficking (Campbell and Zimmerman 2014). Organizations with some explicit or implicit connection to Evangelical Christian movements have become increasingly direct in their connection between stripping or pornography and sex trafficking (Fight the New Drug 2017; Martin 2019). The logic here is in line with anti-sex work feminist theories: women can never consent to commercial sex in any form, sex trafficking involves the absence of consent, and thus commercial sex is sex trafficking. This finding also appeared in two other interviews, both with CPC-affiliated individuals.

  7. 7.

    These reasons include but are not limited to fear of eviction, losing custody of their children, or deportation if undocumented; distrust of law enforcement officers; and desires to avoid the potential trauma of retelling their stories in a jury trial (Chapkis 2003; D’Adamo 2016; Farrell et al. 2014; Grant 2014; Mac and Smith 2018). In addition, sex workers face the pervasive, persistent threat of physical and sexual violence from law enforcement officers themselves (Grant 2018a; Ritchie 2017; Starr 2018), which frequently deters them from seeking modes of assistance inside the criminal justice system. In line with other anti-violence fields (Kim 2013; Phillips and Chagnon 2020; Sered 2017), the assumption that every survivor of every form of interpersonal or gendered violence wants the same mode of retributive, carceral justice is an overgeneralization of a complex decision-making process.

  8. 8.

    As part of the TVPA’s provisions for trafficked persons, five-thousand visas are set aside annually for non-citizen survivors in the US. Importantly, in order to qualify for a T visa, survivors must also comply with prosecutions against identified traffickers. This carceral component has led to necessary critiques, as T visas enforce a hierarchy of norms surrounding ideal victimhood and coerce compliance with criminal legal systems (Chapkis 2003; Srikantiah 2007).

  9. 9.

    The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), supported by a bipartisan House and Senate, and signed by President Donald J. Trump, has been critiqued by sex workers, activists, and trafficking survivors (Survivors Against SESTA Against 2019). By shuttering online spaces for advertising, like Backpage, FOSTA-SESTA helped “drive sex workers out of indoor work spaces that allowed for discreet advertising and client screening and into the streets,” increasing financial precarity and decreasing opportunities for safe vetting of potential clients (Grant 2018b).

References

  1. Amnesty International. (2016). Amnesty International Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/POL3040622016ENGLISH.PDF.

  2. Balfour, G., Hannah-Moffat, K., & Turnbull, S. (2019). Planning for precarity? Experiencing the carceral continuum of imprisonment and reentry. Studies in Law, Politics and Society, 77, 31–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Berg, H. (2015). Trafficking policy, meaning making and state violence. Social Policy and Society, 14(1), 145–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Berger, S. M. (2012). No end in sight: Why the ‘end demand’ movement is the wrong focus for efforts to eliminate human trafficking. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 35(2), 523–570.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bernstein, E. (2012). Carceral politics as gender justice? The ‘traffic in women’ and neoliberal circuits of crime, sex, and rights. Theory and Society, 41(3), 233–259.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bradley, E. H., Curry, L. A., & Devers, K. J. (2007). Qualitative data analysis for health services research: developing taxonomy, themes, and theory. Health Services Research, 42(4), 1758–1772.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Brooks, S. (2010). Unequal desires: Race and erotic capital in the stripping industry. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brown, M. (2009). The culture of punishment: Prison, society, and spectacle. New York: NYU Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Brown, E. N. (2019). Are you a woman traveling alone? Marriott might be watching you. Reason, February 5. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, from https://reason.com/2019/02/05/hotel-surveillance-state-sex-trafficking/.

  10. Brown, M., & Schept, J. (2017). New abolition, criminology and a critical carceral studies. Punishment & Society, 19(4), 440–462.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bumiller, K. (2009). In an abusive state: How neoliberalism appropriated the feminist movement against sexual violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Campbell, L. M., & Zimmerman, Y. C. (2014). Christian ethics and human trafficking activism: Progressive christianity and social critique. Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 34(1), 145–172.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Chapkis, W. (2003). Trafficking, migration, and the law: Protecting innocents, punishing immigrants. Gender & Society, 17(6), 923–937.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Charmaz. (1996). Grounded theory. In J. A. Smith, R. Harré, & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Rethinking methods in psychology (pp. 27–49). London: SAGE Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  15. D’Adamo, K. (2016). Prioritising prosecutions is the wrong approach. Anti-Trafficking Review, 6, 111–113.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Daring, C. (2018). SWOP-USA Suggested Policy Position on Sex Work & Decriminalization. March 25. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from https://swopusa.org/blog/2018/03/25/swop-usa-suggested-policy-position-on-sex-work-decriminalization/.

  17. Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete?. New York: Seven Stories Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Decrim NY. (n.d.) New York State Bills for the 2019–2020 Legislative Session. Retrieved on March 1, 2020, from https://www.decrimny.org/advocacy.

  19. DECRIMNOW D. C. (2018). Background on DECRIMNOW. Retrieved on March 1, 2020, from https://www.decrimnow.org/about. Accessed 1 March 2020.

  20. Desiree Alliance. (2016). Desiree Alliance. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from http://desireealliance.org/home/.

  21. Dilts, A. (2017). Justice as failure. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 13(2), 184–192.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Dirks, D., Heldman, C., & Zack, E. (2015). ‘She’s white and she’s hot, so she can’t be guilty’: Female criminality, penal spectatorship, and white protectionism. Contemporary Justice Review, 18(2), 160–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Farrell, A., Owens, C., & McDevitt, J. (2014). New laws but few cases: Understanding the challenges to the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 61(2), 139–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Fight the New Drug. (2017). How Porn Fuels Sex Trafficking. Retrieved on February 15, 2020, from https://fightthenewdrug.org/how-porn-fuels-sex-trafficking/.

  25. Gallagher, A. T., & Surtees, R. (2012). Measuring the success of counter-trafficking interventions in the criminal justice sector: Who decides—and how? Anti-Trafficking Review, 1, 10–30.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Grant, M. G. (2014). Playing the whore: The work of sex work. London: Verso Books.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Grant, M. G. (2018a). Columbus officer was under investigation when he shot and killed donna dalton. The Appeal, August 30. Retrieved on May 5, 2020, from https://theappeal.org/columbus-officer-was-under-investigation-when-he-shot-and-killed-sex-worker-donna-dalton/.

  28. Grant, M. G. (2018b). FOSTA backers to sex workers: Your work can never be safe. The Appeal, April 24. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from https://theappeal.org/fosta-backers-to-sex-workers-your-work-can-never-be-safe-5a67582e04f3/.

  29. Hill, A. (2016). How to stage a raid: Police, media and the master narrative of trafficking. Anti-Trafficking Review, 7, 39–55.

    Google Scholar 

  30. INCITE!. (2006). The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Jones, T., & Newburn, T. (2006). Understanding plural policing. In T. Jones & T. Newburn (Eds.), Plural policing: A comparative perspective (pp. 1–11). London: Routledge.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  32. Kempadoo, K. (2015). The modern-day white (wo)man’s burden: Trends in anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns. Journal of Human Trafficking, 1(1), 8–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Kim, M. E. (2013). Challenging the pursuit of criminalization in an era of mass incarceration: The limitations of social work responses to domestic violence in the USA. The British Journal of Social Work, 43(7), 1276–1293.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Koyama, E. (2012). State violence, sex trade, and the failure of anti-trafficking policies: Resisting criminalization as the solution to ‘modern day slavery’. Portland, OR: Confluere Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Linnemann, T., Hanson, L., & Williams, L. S. (2013). ‘With scenes of blood and pain’: Crime control and the punitive imagination of The Meth Project. The British Journal of Criminology, 53(4), 605–623.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Lutnick, A. (2006). The St. James Infirmary: A history. Sexuality and Culture, 10(2), 56–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Mac, J., & Smith, M. (2018). Revolting prostitutes: The fight for sex workers’ rights. London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Macias Konstantopoulos, W., Ahn, R., Alpert, E. J., Caffert, E., McGahan, A., Williams, T. P., et al. (2013). An international comparative public health analysis of sex trafficking of women and girls in eight cities: Achieving a more effective health sector response. Journal of Urban Health, 90(6), 1194–1204.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Mai, N. (2018). Mobile orientations: An intimate autoethnography of migration, sex work, and humanitarian borders. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  40. Manza, J., & Uggen, C. (2008). Locked out: Felon disenfranchisement and American democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Marriott International, Inc. (2019). Marriott international has trained 500,000 hotel workers to recognize the signs of human trafficking. Cision PR Newswire, January 18. Retrieved on August 2019, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/marriott-international-has-trained-500-000-hotel-workers-to-recognize-the-signs-of-human-trafficking-300780898.html?tc=eml_cleartime.

  42. Martin, A.R. (2019). When exploitation fails our expectations. Retrieved on September 3, 2020, from https://exoduscry.com/blog/shiftingculture/when-exploitation-fails-our-expectations/.

  43. McKim, A. (2013). Roxanne’s dress: Governing gender and marginality through addiction treatment. Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 39(2), 433–458.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Merry, S. E. (2016). The seductions of quantification: Measuring human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  45. Musto, J. (2013). Domestic minor sex trafficking and the detention-to-protection pipeline. Dialectical Anthropology, 37(2), 257–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Musto, J. (2016). Control and protect: Collaboration, carceral protection, and domestic sex trafficking in the United States. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  47. Musto, J. (2019). Transing critical criminology: A critical unsettling and transformative anti-carceral feminist reframing. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 27(3), 37–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Owens, C., Dank, M., Breaux, J., Bañuelos, I., Farrell, A., Pfeffer, R., et al. (2014). Understanding the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor trafficking in the United States. New York: Urban Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Peters, A. W. (2013). ‘Things that involve sex are just different:’ US anti-trafficking law and policy on the books, in their minds, and in action. Anthropological Quarterly, 86(1), 221–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Phillips, N. D., & Chagnon, N. (2020). “Six months is a joke”: Carceral feminism and penal populism in the wake of the Stanford sexual assault case. Feminist Criminology, 15(1), 47–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Richie, B. (2012). Arrested justice: Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Ritchie, A. J. (2017). Invisible no more: Police violence against black women and women of color. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Robinson, B., & Chin, K. (2020). Decarceral alliances in the fight to decriminalize sex work. Open Democracy, February 10. Retrieved on February 10, 2020, from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/decarceral-alliances-fight-decriminalize-sex-work/.

  54. Roosevelt, M. (2019). Are you an employee or a contractor? Carpenters, strippers and dog walkers now face that question. Los Angeles Times, February 23. Retrieved on September 26, 2019, from https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-dynamex-contractors-20190223-story.html.

  55. Scarpello, F. (2017). Toward the political economy of plural policing: Taking stock of a burgeoning literature. International Studies Review, 19(3), 407–429.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Schwarz, C. (2019). Human trafficking and meaning making: The role of definitions in antitrafficking frontline work. Social Service Review, 93(3), 484–523.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Schwarz, C., & Grizzell, T. (2020). Trafficking spectacle: Affect and state power in Operation Cross Country X. Frontiers A Journal of Women Studies, 41(2), 57–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Schwarz, C., Unruh, E., Cronin, K., Evans-Simpson, S., Britton, H., & Ramaswamy, M. (2016). Human trafficking identification and service provision in the medical and social service sectors. Health and Human Rights Journal, 18(1), 181–192.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Sered, D. (2017). Accounting for violence: How to increase safety and break our failed reliance on mass incarceration. New York: Vera Institute of Justice.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Shih, E. (2016). Not in my ‘backyard abolitionism’: Vigilante rescue against American sex trafficking. Sociological Perspectives, 59(1), 66–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Singh, R. (2018). ‘Setting a good example for the ladies’: Example setting as a technique of penal reform in specialized prostitution court. The British Journal of Criminology, 58(3), 569–587.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Small, J. L. (2012). Trafficking in truth: Media, sexuality, and human rights evidence. Feminist Studies, 38(2), 415–443.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Song, S. (2019). When anti-sex trafficking policies like the Marriott’s do more harm than good. Paper, January 30. Retrieved on September 12, 2019, from https://www.papermag.com/marriott-hotels-sex-trafficking-training-2627520121.html.

  64. Srikantiah, J. (2007). Perfect victims and real survivors: The iconic victim in domestic human trafficking law. Boston University Law Review, 87(1), 157–211.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Starr, L. (2018). When Will It Be #TimesUp For Rapist Cops? #MeToo And Sex Workers.Tits and Sass, February 23. Retrieved on May 5, 2020, from http://titsandsass.com/when-will-it-be-timesup-for-rapist-cops-metoo-and-sex-workers/.

  66. Stoklosa, H., Dawson, M. B., Williams-Oni, F., & Rothman, E. F. (2017). A review of U.S. health care institution protocols for the identification and treatment of victims of human trafficking. Journal of Human Trafficking, 3(2), 116–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Survivors Against SESTA. (2019). #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA. March 15. Retrieved on February 23, 2020, from https://survivorsagainstsesta.org/.

  68. Swarner, J. (2019). Cindy McCain says she witnessed human trafficking at Phoenix airport. KTAR News, February 4. Retrieved on September 19, 2019, from https://ktar.com/story/2424401/cindy-mccain-says-she-witnessed-human-trafficking-at-phoenix-airport/.

  69. The Lancet. (2016). Keeping sex workers safe. The Lancet, 386(9993) [August 8], 504. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(15)61460-X.

  70. The Marshall Project. (2020). Prison violence: A curated collection of links. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/128-prison-violence.

  71. Wilson, M., & O’Brien, E. (2016). Constructing the ideal victim in the United States of America’s annual trafficking in persons reports. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 65(1–2), 29–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Wooditch, A. (2011). The efficacy of the trafficking in persons report: A review of the evidence. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22(4), 471–493.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Zhang, S. X., Spiller, M. W., Finch, B. K., & Qin, Y. (2014). Estimating labor trafficking among unauthorized migrant workers in San Diego. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 653(1), 65–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant 1624317. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Additional support came from the University of Kansas Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative, Hall Center for the Humanities, Institute for Policy and Social Research, Office of Graduate Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Department of Political Science. Special thanks to the two anonymous reviewers whose generous feedback shaped this work, as well as the editorial guidance of Avi Brisman.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Corinne Schwarz.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schwarz, C. “I Can Be Big Sister, Even If You Can’t Be Big Brother:” Spectatorship and Punishment in Anti-trafficking Efforts. Crit Crim 29, 613–632 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-020-09530-4

Download citation