While definitional issues might not appear significant to trafficking advocacy, the definition of trafficking used by an anti-trafficker not only signals the ontological commitments of its speaker, it also indicates the pathways of anti-trafficking that this actor will take as information flows through their networks. Over the past 20 years, anti-trafficking has emerged as a legal concept, an activist movement, and a political position held aloft by its antithesis, trafficking. Annelise Riles argues that the “constellation” of academic and activist debates, people, ideas, and institutions associated with an issue at a specific moment serve to simultaneously reify the issue and produce professionalized experts of that issue (Riles 2000, 2002). For Riles, the phrase “human rights” is a historical object, a hybrid of political agenda and social movement. “Human rights” is an example of what Star and Greisemer (1989) call a “boundary object,” an object of knowledge that is immutable and mobile, legible across disciplines and polities. “Anti-trafficking” is a similar sort of hybrid, simultaneously a phrase, a movement, and an agenda. “Anti-trafficking” is a mobile, boundary-crossing object, wielded by politicians, non-profit leaders, survivors, and technocrats alike. The mobility of the term leads us to focus on the spaces in which it has currency; as Riles suggests, focusing on “matters of ‘form’ in institutional practices” (2002: 291).
Our initial fieldwork suggests that anti-trafficking is taking the form of a counter-network to the sex trafficking it seeks to address. The production of the network form also produces “anti-traffickers” as “knowledge professionals” committed to representing “the issue” and simultaneously upholding their status within the network. Anti-trafficking can be seen as both a project and as a representation: as a project, its actors must repeat the mantra of “anti-trafficking” in various political spaces; as a representation, “anti-trafficking” is more than phrasing, but a functional term to be “deployed” for action. Through language and normative judgment, anti-trafficking actors produce their own network—a matrix of actors who are simultaneously enrolled and mobilized through their commitment to producing and distribution of information about the issue of anti-trafficking and at philosophical odds with one another based on moral, strategic, and tactical differences. “Anti-trafficking,” in its moral, activist, legal, and data-driven constitutions, can be seen as an emergent network parallel to the trafficking that it seeks to address.
Voicing varying definitions and understandings of trafficking within, around, and outside of the law, anti-trafficking actors place themselves at various nodes of the network relative to one another as well as funding agencies, law enforcement officials, health advocates, and interdisciplinary scholars. This complex network of actors and commitments gives “anti-trafficking” purchase as a term, an action, and an activist movement (albeit a somewhat fractured one). Riles suggests that this activist network phenomenon creates a “virtual sociality of rights” (2002: 286), in which anti-trafficking is simultaneously an activist strategy as well as a political viewpoint. Riles’ article describes the discursive production and networked nature of the phrase “women’s rights as human rights,” which required the particular epistemic congregation of activists and academics at specific historic moments and places such as the Beijing Conference on Women. Riles labels these actors “knowledge professionals.” Anti-trafficking is undergoing a similar moment, where academic researchers and activists at the anti-trafficking roundtables of conferences and meetings circulate data and documents in their search for definitions and ultimately with the simple shared goal of ending exploitation of certain persons.
A striking example of relationality in the anti-trafficking network is the mobilization of actors necessary to advocate for the closure of Craigslist’s sexual services site. Many non-governmental and government-affiliated organizations were interested in the possibility of this site’s closure, dictated by a carceral approach to sex work in general. The closure movement gained momentum when one state’s youth advocacy agency contracted a professional research group to conduct a study of Craigslist usage and the dynamics of demand in that state (Schapiro Group 2010). The use of networked contacts, the production of data, and the circulation of research documents is what we mean by “relationality” in the counter-network.
Going forward, we will continue to explore the ways in which anti-traffickers produce networks for themselves, as they argue for limits to classified and social media websites. At the time of this writing, debates around websites such as Backpage and myRedBook continue to emerge among anti-trafficking experts concerned with child sexual exploitation. Ongoing research questions for our project include: How do anti-trafficking advocates define technology, and in what ways are these definitions technologically deterministic? For example, how do certain discourses conflate classifieds websites with social media websites, and in so doing ascribe agency to media technologies as “drivers” of sex trafficking? How do anti-traffickers use their discourses around technology to locate themselves within the larger anti-trafficking network?
The director of the human trafficking legal clinic notes that the predominant sex trafficking narrative in the United States is heavily raced and classed, directing media attention toward outlier cases of white, middle-class women who have potentially been trafficked. She comments wryly, “We have this view of sex trafficking…that those aren’t the types of girls who would do sex work. They got tricked.” In her view, the spinning of such narratives creates a clear distinction between sexual exploitation and sex work along racial and economic lines—that “those girls” would never voluntarily engage in sex work. This narrative not only erases the circumstances and realities of sex work, which includes people of multiple racial and economic backgrounds as well as sexualities and nationalities; it also denies agency and dignity to those doing sex work itself.
At a meeting we attended, a group of anti-trafficking organizations were asked how many sexually exploited children were under the control of a pimp. Representatives from two different organizations responded with radically opposing answers. A representative from an organization that works with survivors identified by law enforcement argued that most teenagers are pimp controlled, while a representative from an organization that primarily works with homeless youth engaged in “survival sex” argued that most commercial sexual exploitation of minors never involved a pimp. These two organizations, working with very different clientele saw the ecosystem in radically different ways. These expert advocates embody network relationality in their comprehension of similar information: “Persons interpret the acts of already existing social entities already related to themselves through their counter-interpretations” (1999: 245). Seeing anti-trafficking as a network form highlights, the “aesthetics of relationality” (Strathern 1995) as anti-trafficking actors perform their roles as well as their relationships. The issue at stake is not simply how these actors define the problem, but how their scoping shapes public discourse, interventions, and advocacy.
A researcher with an advocacy organization mused, “I think a lot of times, advocates on this issue just get stuck. I’ve literally been in meetings that have span over the course of multiple years where people are still trying to have the debate over what they want to call this problem. Who cares? ··· Our goal is to find things that we can do, not to spend too much time debating what should be done because also coordination within the advocacy community is often a latent effect. You get coordination after someone gets a toe hold and you’re able to make progress and then people will jump onboard because they are guided by their heart, by their mind, by the best evidence they have available to them at that time that this is a good way to go.”
In providing this description, this researcher describes the efficacy of the anti-trafficking network in perpetuating the network itself and yet continuing to situate actors as distinct, separable nodes, parallel to one another—supposedly working toward the same goal and yet always ideologically apart. There is an acquired technique or craft of rights discourse and anti-trafficking discourse: one cannot simply walk into a room of anti-trafficking activists and participate at the level of equal understanding to “get things done.” Perhaps, because there are so many moral valences to trafficking (e.g., the age of sexual consent, the notion that sex work is labor, the politics of rescue, and the repatriation of trafficked migrants, to name a few), there are so few moments of emphatic nods in the room. Yet, even in order to disagree, participants “must share a register of contention that renders the conflict explicit to oneself and others” (Riles 2002: 298). The University of Colorado’s clinic on human trafficking has even launched a “taxonomy project” aiming to trace the etymologies of human trafficking terms and assemble the trafficking lexicon, as it were. Anti-trafficking discourse is speech performance, and those in the network must remain articulate.
As a network of actors organized around a complex issue with many tangled facets, anti-trafficking advocates often seek to create clear boundaries and distinctions in order to position themselves––and their rhetoric––as central. In doing so, they construct a discursive network whose power rests on the ability to generate attention to the seriousness of the issue in order to secure resources.