Theory and Society

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 233–259 | Cite as

Carceral politics as gender justice? The “traffic in women” and neoliberal circuits of crime, sex, and rights

  • Elizabeth BernsteinEmail author


This article draws upon recent works in sociology, jurisprudence, and feminist theory in order to assess the ways in which feminism, and sex and gender more generally, have become intricately interwoven with punitive agendas in contemporary US politics. Melding existing theoretical discussions of penal trends with insights drawn from my own ethnographic research on the contemporary anti-trafficking movement in the United States—the most recent domain of feminist activism in which a crime frame has prevailed against competing models of social justice—I elaborate upon the ways that neoliberalism and the politics of sex and gender have intertwined to produce a carceral turn in feminist advocacy movements previously organized around struggles for economic justice and liberation. Taking the anti-trafficking movement as a case study, I further demonstrate how human rights discourse has become a key vehicle both for the transnationalization of carceral politics and for the reincorporation of these policies into the domestic terrain in a benevolent, feminist guise. I conclude by urging greater and more nuanced attention to the operations of gender and sexual politics within mainstream analyses of contemporary modes of punishment, as well as a careful consideration of the neoliberal carceral state within feminist discussions of gender, sexuality, and the law.


Feminism Law Politics Transnationalism Human rights 



I would like to thank Raewyn Connell and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful commentary on an earlier draft of this article. For their feedback, I am also grateful to Kerwin Kaye, Nicki Beisel, Lauren Berlant, Linda Zerilli, and members of the Spring 2011 faculty seminar at the University of Chicago's Center for Gender Studies.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Barnard CollegeColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

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