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