It is also remarkable given that, since 2000, the initial year of the law’s passage, there have only been 6,384 T visas issued, 1,461 cases filed with the Department of Justice, and 896 convictions—for sex and labor trafficking combined. In the city of New York, purportedly one of the central hubs of sex trafficking in the United States, since 2008 there have been only sixty-two convictions for the crime
US Department of State (2015, 2016), US Department of Justice (2011a, 2012). Established in 2000 with the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), T visas grant “T” (trafficking) nonimmigrant status and allow victims to stay in the country if they comply with federal investigations aimed at prosecuting those who were responsible for their trafficking (US Citizenship and Immigration Services, n.d.).
New York State Department of Criminal Justice services, personal communication, March 9, 2017. The discrepancies between official estimates and actual cases of sex trafficking have been so vast that they have periodically been reported by even mainstream news outlets. In 2007, an article by the journalist Jerry Markon in the Washington Post noted the discrepancy between the 1,362 identified victims of human trafficking in the United States and the previously estimated 50,000 a year (Markon 2007). In 2009, Nick Davies similarly debunked the numbers of sex trafficking cases in the UK with two of his articles in The Guardian. In an article tellingly titled “Inquiry Fails to Find Single Trafficker Who Forced Anybody into Prostitution” (Davies 2009a), he makes it known that “the UK’s biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution.” In a subsequent article, he showed how the estimated number of 4,000 trafficking victims that was qualified by researchers as speculative came to be accepted as fact by the 2006 Home Office Minister (Davies 2009b). It was subsequently recirculated and even exaggerated by groups such as the Christian charity CARE, the Salvation Army, and Anti-Slavery International.
contemporary evangelical anti-trafficking activists reveal a set of political commitments that both encompasses and transcends prior depictions of conservative Christians’ sexual worldviews. The alliance that they have forged with secular feminists has occurred not only around a particular relational configuration of gender and sexuality (i.e., a commitment to an ideal of amatively coupled heterosexuality, one that cannot imagine a place for prostitution outside the scope of women’s exploitation) but also by a shared commitment to neoliberal economic and cultural agendas. The pursuit of “women’s human rights,” in this shared vision, is imagined in terms of women’s (legitimate) reinsertion into market economies and their protection by state apparatuses of criminal justice.
Of course, for those familiar with the evolution of what legal theorist Janet Halley has termed “governance feminism” (in which feminism “moves off the streets and into the state”4), as well as the historical precedent of the turn-of-the-century white slavery panic, the presence of prominent feminist activists at neoconservative think tanks and within federal courthouses might come across as less of a surprise. As we have seen, in addition to the echoes of white slavery, there are also important historical resonances between the current US anti-trafficking campaign and the Meese Commission anti-pornography hearings that took place during the 1980s, in which conservative Christians and secular feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin similarly joined forces for the sake of sexual reform. It has also been demonstrated that the feminist embrace of state-anchored sexual moralism is particularly apt to resurface during periods of right-wing ascendancy, like the Reagan years of the 1980s, when opportunities for more substantive political and economic change are elusive.5 Indeed, a resurgent feminist-conservative alliance was also actively fostered by the George W. Bush White House—both rhetorically, as in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and through the cultivation of explicit political ties, as in the appointment of renowned feminist activist Laura Lederer as senior director for global projects on trafficking in persons at the US Department of State.6 In addition to Lederer, other prominent feminists would go on to actively and publicly embrace Bush administration initiatives. Notably, in a February 2004 article in the Washington Post cowritten by iconic second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler and women’s studies professor cum anti-trafficking activist Donna Hughes, the authors provided a vigorous defense not only of the Bush administration’s anti-trafficking policies but also of its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, declaring that contemporary conservatives and faith-based organizations had become more reliable advocates of democracy and women’s rights across the globe than the liberal left had ever been.7 The embrace of discourses of family values, democracy building, naming and shaming, and criminalization by a new crop of avowedly conservative feminists is certainly significant, with figures such as Sarah Palin and Ayaan Hirsi Ali constituting other prominent examples of the trend.8 Yet important, too, is the extent to which feminists who identify as secular liberals and progressives have also found themselves in easy agreement with much of this agenda, and thus ready and eager participants in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns. This partnership is crucial to consider because it points to a more thorough imbrication of mainstream feminist and neoliberal state interests than the oft-employed rubric of the “strange bedfellows” relationship between secular feminists and evangelical Christians implies.9 While previous commentators have also pointed to a collusion between mainstream feminism and state agendas of border control in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns (where feminist activism unwittingly supports the deportation of migrant sex workers under the guise of securing their protection), the ethnographic examples provided in the pages that follow provide an important elaboration of this insight, revealing the direct embrace of carceral politics and a securitized state apparatus to be increasingly hegemonic feminist remedies.
On a cold and windy February afternoon, I approach the fifth in a series of lunchtime rallies on behalf of a new NY State law which would stiffen the potential criminal penalties against men who are convicted of patronizing a prostitute, from 90 days to a year in prison.27 When I arrive at Foley Square, I encounter a group of fifty or so women (mostly White or Asian, and all conspicuously middle class as indicated by their stylish attire and educated patterns of speech) as well as a gathering pool of journalists and onlookers. Present too are several influential City and State-level political figures who have been invited by the organizers to speak. Women from the rally’s two sponsoring feminist organizations (NOW-NYC and Equality Now) as well as a smattering of other groups are gathered on the steps behind the speakers, holding up signs from their respective organizations and handing out press packets. Periodically, they coax the rest of the crowd to join together in a chant: “What do we want? A strong trafficking law! When do we want it? Now!” Or, “Elliot Spitzer, take the lead! A strong trafficking bill is what we need!”28 In their depictions of the sex industry, all of the speakers at the rally deploy the new anti-trafficking buzzwords (“victim,” “predator,” “perpetrator,” “perpetrator,” “exploiter”) along with stock anecdotes of innocent women having their papers confiscated, being forced to sell their bodies, and being trapped or tricked. The narratives of women’s victimization are coupled with an insistence upon the need to “focus on demand” and to aggressively pursue the perpetrators of sexual violence. Criminal law is rendered as a surprisingly powerful and effective deterrent to men’s bad behavior: “We need to have laws that will make men think twice about entering the commercial sexual exploitation business,” one passionate City Council member explains. The final speaker at the event is Angela Lee from the New York Asian Women’s Center. Fashionable and fortyish, dressed in a black leather jacket and fitted slacks, she makes no mention of the role played by global poverty in the dynamics of trafficking or prostitution, instead framing the issue in terms of the sexual integrity of families. “This is a family issue,” she declares outright, “especially as Chinese New Year approaches and there are so many victims’ families who won’t be able to celebrate.”29 Lee goes on to link the dangers faced by trafficking victims to New York’s State’s lack of success thus far in imposing a law that would provide severe enough criminal penalties for traffickers and pimps. She concludes her speech with the emotional declaration that “We need to punish the traffickers and set the victims free!”
From my field notes, New York City, February 2007
As the legal scholar Alice Miller has observed, in the late 1990s, this pivot first occurred within the context of transnational feminist organizing at the United Nations, an attention that brought with it “a focus on crime control methods and rescue, to the detriment of the promotion of the full range of rights needed by trafficked persons.” According to Miller, the 2000 UN Protocol against Trafficking in Persons created international law “in the context of crime control—not human rights or labor protections.”30 The human rights lawyer Ann Jordan, who was herself present for the protocol negotiations has noted simply: “The Trafficking Protocol is not, unfortunately, a human rights instrument. The UN Crime Commission, which developed the Trafficking Protocol, is a law enforcement body, not a human rights body. Its Vienna location also physically isolates its members from the human rights bodies, which are located in Geneva and New York. For these reasons, the Trafficking Protocol is primarily a law enforcement instrument.”31 Other commentators have cautioned that the general focus on law enforcement rather than human rights in the protocol provides no guarantee that victims will be given more rights or more power to impact their situation. The UN anti-trafficking protocol, for example, mandates that states must take strong police action against traffickers, but it makes protections for victims a voluntary option.32 In the United States, the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that feminists lobbied for and supported was bundled together with a reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act, extending the latter’s criminal justice approach toward gender violence to a new substantive domain. As in the UN Protocol, victim protection remains secondary to agendas of criminal punishment and prosecution. For example, while the TVPA offers victims participation in the Witness Protection Program and temporary visas enabling them to stay and work in the United States, these provisions are available only to a person who “is willing to assist in every reasonable way in the investigation and prosecution of severe forms of trafficking in persons.” The TVPA thus added very little to the small modicum of rights that were already granted to irregular migrants (especially those willing to testify in criminal cases), and it must be seen against the backdrop of deportation that those victims deemed “uncooperative” must alternatively face.33 Furthermore, as legal scholar Janie Chuang notes, the TVPA reaches beyond US borders to affect anti-trafficking policy abroad by establishing a sanctions regime authorizing the president to withdraw US (and certain multilateral) non-trade-related, nonhumanitarian financial assistance from countries deemed “not sufficiently compliant” with US government standards—a decision which, critics charge, is often entangled with other political concerns.
Although some anti-trafficking activists continue to work toward the goal of decriminalizing and securing economic rights for sex workers, the overwhelming thrust of current feminist attention has been oriented toward widening—rather than curtailing—the sphere of criminal justice intervention in the sex industry. This is particularly remarkable given that sex worker activists have insisted that they are far more likely to experience violence at the hands of police officers and social service workers than they are from clients and pimps.35 Recent state interventions on behalf of trafficking victims—including the passage of “safe harbor” laws for underage sex workers and the implementation of special prostitution and trafficking courts, which remand convicted prostitutes to mandatory social service programs—may appear on the surface to counter these trends, but in practice they serve to reinforce them. The stated aim of so-called “safe-harbor legislation” is to change how the criminal justice system treats minors in the sex industry. As such, safe-harbor laws understand minors in the sex trade to be de facto victims rather than criminals, and they depend on the implementation of programs that connect minors with services and resources (e.g., counseling, educational and vocational assessment, protective custody). This kind of service provision has often been facilitated through the creation of specialized prostitution and trafficking courts that combine assessments and court monitoring with the provision of social services.36 Yet scholars and activists who have carefully observed these programs note that they extend the length and restrictive conditions of involuntary confinement and enhance existing mechanisms of coercion through mandatory drug testing and guilty pleas.37 Others have pointed to the dissonance between the idea of sexually exploited youth and the experiences of the majority of underage sex workers who are independent, “defiant and oppositional to treatment,” and who habitually run away from service providers.38 Finally, Jennifer Musto points out that social services are offered to victims only insofar as “they are stabilized in being able to testify against their traffickers.” In this way, they “provide a pathway to fulfilling the criminal justice goal of effectively prosecuting trafficker pimps and expanding the carceral state.”39
As we have seen, although “trafficking” as defined in international protocols and in current federal law is capacious enough to encompass sweatshop labor, agricultural work, or unscrupulous labor practices on US military bases, it has been the far less common instances of sexually trafficked women and girls that have stimulated the most concern by feminist activists, the state, and the press.40 Feminist anti-trafficking activists from mainstream and politically influential organizations such as Equality Now and the Coalition against Trafficking in Women have themselves acknowledged that a focus upon sexual violation rather than the structural conditions of exploited labor more generally—in addition to their strategic partnership on this issue with evangelical Christians—has been crucial to transforming trafficking into a legal framework with powerful material and symbolic effects. As one of the founding members of the prominent feminist anti-trafficking NGO Equality Now explained to me during an interview, framing the harms of prostitution and trafficking as politically neutral questions of humanitarian concern about third-world women, rather than as issues that directly affected the lives of Western feminists, was pivotal to waging the fight against commercial sexuality successfully. At events such as the February 2007 anti-trafficking rally that I attended at Foley Square in New York City, the political efficacy of conjoining the threat of sexual violence with calls for an expanded carceral state apparatus was apparent, with political leaders and feminist activists in strong agreement that human trafficking was primarily an issue of family values, sexual predation, and victimized women and children. At the rally, anti-trafficking activists located sexual menace squarely outside the home, despite a once hegemonic feminist contention that homes and families are the most dangerous places for women and children to be.
“Seeing prostitutes shapes men’s view of what sex is, who women are, and how they should be treated,” remarked one white, middle-class activist at a popular anti-trafficking event that was sponsored by the feminist anti-trafficking NGO, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). “The idea that you can contain the value system of prostitution, and it will only affect those women, or those women in that country, and that it won’t spill over into society as a whole . . . is an illusion,” suggested another. As the British cultural theorist Jo Doezema has argued in regard to Western feminists’ “‘wounded attachment’ to the third world prostitute,” “the ‘injured body’ of the ‘third The link between global sex trafficking and the gendered power relations of heterosexual domesticity is also made explicit in a recent collection of essays, Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking, published by a feminist anti-trafficking NGO. In one essay, the activist Chyng Sun emphasizes the damage that commercialized sex does to private-sphere, heterosexual relationships when it serves as the new standard for how all women “should look, sound, and behave.” In a previous feminist collection, Not for Sale, the author Kirsten Anderberg issues a condemnation of the global sex industry after describing how watching pornographic videos with her male lover led to debilitating body issues and to plummeting self-esteem.57 In the same way that a set of material and symbolic interests in heterosexual marriage undergirded the sexually “puritanical” nineteenth-century feminist battles against white slavery, abortion rights, and even birth control,58 so too do contemporary feminist activists harbor a set of investments in “family values” and home that are decipherable in terms of the global interconnections of late-capitalist consumer culture.
For contemporary anti-trafficking activists, a key ambition is to make the institution of heterosexual marriage more egalitarian and more secure by restoring an amative sexual ethic to sexual relations. Although anti-trafficking activists come from both heteronormative, liberal-feminist lineages and more “radical” lesbian-feminist traditions (as illustrated, for example, by the alliance between the National Organization for Women–NYC (NOW-NYC) and Equality Now at the 2007 rally), what binds the two groups to one another, as well as to their evangelical Christian counterparts, is their shared commitment to a relational, as opposed to recreational, sexual ethic.60 More pivotal than the heterosexual versus lesbian-feminist divide of generations past,61 the conviction that sexuality should be kept within the confines of the pair-bonded, romantic couple serves to cement a political alliance between ideologically disparate constituencies. As one feminist activist explained to me in recounting the initial forging of the alliance between the divergent groups that constitute the anti-trafficking coalition: “A whole consortium from the farthest left to the farthest right was in favor of making all prostitution trafficking. . . . What was really interesting is the coalition of people . . . a coalition that included Salvation Army and the lesbian-feminist Equality Now, and CATW up in New York and Michael Horowitz who’s very conservative. . . . That’s new politics. I had never before seen a group like that.”
From the perspective of various secular feminist and conservative Christian anti-trafficking activists whom I interviewed, the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s notably served to alter the balance of gendered power by creating extrafamilial sexual temptations for men. The influential anti-trafficking activist Donna Hughes has thus attributed the existence of human trafficking not only to prostitution, but also to the advent of a culturally liberal and permissive attitude toward sex that generates men’s demand for sexual services.63 Another anti-trafficking activist whom I interviewed about her engagement in the issue similarly sketched her perception of feminists’ sexual dilemma in broad strokes, explaining that “through TV commercials, through billboards, through marketing, the sexuality continuously keeps increasing where there is no . . . protection anymore over our physical bodies, there are no more parameters, everything is acceptable.” A third feminist commentator who is active in contemporary anti-trafficking debates has expressly attributed the “traffic in women” to the mainstreaming of prostitution, pornography, and sexually explicit mass media.64 These activists are not mistaken in their identification of a new consumer-driven paradigm of sexuality that has co-emerged with other late-capitalist cultural transformations and that might best be defined as recreational, rather than relational, in its underlying ethic. What is ironic and surprising is the extent to which feminist anti-trafficking activists have embraced a pro-familial strategy for battling this trend, one that is itself intricately interwoven with neoliberal commitments to capitalism and criminalization. Rather than regarding the heterosexual nuclear family as another institution of male domination to be abolished (and itself a key incarnation of the “traffic in women”65) contemporary anti-trafficking discourse situates the family as a privatized sphere of safety for women and children that the criminal justice system should be harnessed to protect. It was thus that one invited speaker at another CATW anti-trafficking event, a young woman who had previously worked in the sex industry and who described herself as a survivor of sex trafficking, attributed this experience to a combination of “no father figure” and an abundance of sexualized mass media. Conversely, she signaled that she had successfully overcome her ordeal by pointing out that she was now married and working full-time at “a good paying, real job.”
in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns it is specifically nonnormative (and racially as well as class-specific) forms of heterosexuality that have become the exclusive political targets.
This commitment to the home as safe haven undergirds what the feminist theorist Inderpal Grewal has described as the “gender of security” in the early twenty-first-century United States. the figure of the “security mom” as one who seeks to harness the power of a securitized state apparatus to protect herself and her children. Akin to Grewal’s analysis, ethnographic observations with feminist anti-trafficking activists reveal a specifically gendered set of investments in the neoliberal carceral state, one that is intricately interwoven with activists’ own social locations as racially and class-privileged women. At the meetings with the anti-trafficking activists that I attended, the interlocking of multiple structures of privilege with a prosecutorial bent was manifest in various ways—from the professional settings of the conferences (e.g., the American Bar Association, the headquarters of the New York County Lawyers’ Association, assorted white-shoe law firms) to the sets of interpersonal connections that activists drew on in their strategizing sessions. “Are there any women judges that are there for us?” asked one activist at the New York County Lawyers’ Association meeting. “Are we on talking relations with the wife of the governor?” queried another. The professional upper-middle-class orientation of anti-trafficking activism that I observed in my research is also consistent with research on the class profiles of anti-prostitution activists in other national contexts and of contemporary transnational feminist activism more generally.68 As members of the class fraction that is most likely to reap strong material and symbolic rewards from marriage, anti-trafficking activists are heavily invested in the maintenance and reproduction of this status and are ready to enlist the state apparatus on behalf of the gendered and sexual interests that are most pertinent to themselves: a version of “feminist family values” that is premised on liberal understandings of formal equality between women and men, and the safe containment of sexuality within the pair-bonded couple.69 As with Grewal’s analysis of the “security mom,” these women utilize and promote the carceral state in order to securitize the sexual boundaries of home.
The feminist embrace of carceral politics and the articulation of these politics through normative ideals of gender, kinship, and sexuality was evident at the meetings of the anti-trafficking caucuses of NOW-NYC and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that I attended between 2006 and 2008. At a November 2006 conference on violence against women that was cosponsored by the AAUW and other feminist organizations, several hundred professional women, predominantly white, spent the day discussing the necessity of abolishing prostitution for women’s equality, while dozens of Black and Latina women dressed in catering uniforms circulated among them arranging tables and chairs and serving drinks. The keynote speaker was a lawyer from the feminist NGO Equality Now, who took the podium after being very graciously introduced as “a former prosecutor of sex crimes and a mother.” Visibly pregnant with a prominent diamond ring on her left finger, this well-coiffed and well-dressed lawyer reminded her audience of the important deterrent effects of criminal law and conveyed the horrors of human trafficking as follows:
I’d like to tell you the story of Christina, who . . . was a victim of human trafficking. She came here as a 19 or 20 year old woman in response to an ad for what she thought was a babysitting job, and when she arrived at JFK airport . . . she was then informed that the babysitting job wasn’t available anymore. . . . Of course . . . she was forced to work in a brothel, and she describes that experience with the same words that any of us would use to describe it. She describes the sex of prostitution as disgusting, as degradation, and profoundly traumatic to her, and what I want to talk to you about is some of the lasting effects are for her, after she escaped the experience. She is infertile. She can never have children.
Nearly identical narratives were presented at the multiple anti-trafficking conferences that I attended throughout the course of my fieldwork, the only significant alteration being the victim’s name.70 Yet there is much to unpack in this exposition of the harms of trafficking through the presentation of “Christina’s story,” which in its sheer generality suggests that it is at least partially fictionalized and at best a strategically constructed composite case. Particularly notable are the moral and political legitimacy afforded to domestic care work as late-capitalist informal-sector employment,71 the invocation of a single gendered (and uniformly negative) experience of “the sex of prostitution,”72 and the construal of reproductive failure as the worst possible harm that could result for female victims. While individual elements of this narrative undoubtedly can and do happen to real individuals, as a representation of human trafficking the scenario described was far from the most empirically prevalent case. Even more curiously, files compiled by the US Department of Justice between 2004 and 2008 contained no trafficking cases which matched this description.73 The lawyer’s simultaneous commitments to the carceral state, the capitalist service sector, and the ideology of feminist family values perfectly paralleled paralleled the underlying neoliberal logic that united these realms, in which the social inequalities that globalization has wrought are legitimate so long as the sexual boundaries of middle-class family life can be maintained.
At a discussion focused on “ending demand” for sex trafficking at the Commission on the Status of Women meetings that I attended at the United Nations in March 2007, the link between sexual and carceral politics was once again revealed. At this meeting dedicated to problematizing men’s “demand” for the services of sex workers, the panelists used the occasion to directly showcase how the carceral state could be effectively harnessed to achieve amatively coupled and sexually egalitarian nuclear families.74 The opening speaker from the Coalition against Trafficking in Women explicitly hailed the five white, middle-class men in the room as exemplars of a new model of enlightened masculinity and urged the audience members “to bring their husbands, sons, and brothers” to future meetings. The model of prostitution and trafficking that the CATW panelists invoked bore little, if any, connection to structural or economic factors, rendering prostitution wholly attributable to the actions of bad men: husbands within the family who might appeal to the sexual services of women outside of it, or bad men outside the family (coded as nonwhite and foreign) who might entice women and girls within it to leave.75 Although the CATW regards itself as a progressive feminist organization, members displayed no hesitation in their appeals to a punitive state apparatus. Nor did they demonstrate much awareness of the political-economic underpinnings, or limited historical scope, of the singular form of heterosexual familial intimacy that they advocated. As the panel chair repeatedly emphasized during her sharply condemnatory presentation about heterosexual men’s purchase of sex: “The only thing that prevents recurrence is fear of arrest.”
In my fieldwork with feminist activists, the utility of the carceral state for securitizing the middle-class family—and more specifically, for domesticating heterosexual men—was also manifest in frequent appeals to the case of Sweden as an exemplar of enlightened anti-trafficking policy. The criminalization of male sex purchasers, a policy model first implemented in Sweden in 1998, is often referred to by transnational feminist activists as the “Swedish Plan” to convey its feminist origins and impact, since Sweden is considered by many to be the most gender-egalitarian country in the world. It was thus that at a subsequent CATW panel that I attended called “Abolishing Sex Slavery: From Stockholm to Hunts Point,” the Swedish policy of criminalizing the clients of sex workers was endorsed by speakers who not only applauded Sweden’s reputation for gender equality but who explicitly referenced the Swedish welfare state’s commitment to “promoting men to be home with their children at a young age.” Left unremarked upon in the transnational dissemination of this carceral strategy is that Sweden itself embraced it only after its hallmark welfare state (which earned it its feminist reputation in the first place) had been seriously weakened in the 1990s.
feminist theorists of neoliberalism such as Lisa Duggan have pointed out the ways in which the ideology of “family values” becomes particularly critical when other possibilities for social relations are eclipsed. Marriage as an institution is “grounded in the privatization of social reproduction, along with the care of human dependency needs, through personal responsibility exercised in the family and in civil society—thus shifting costs from state agencies to individuals and households.”77 The demise of the welfare state and the ascendance of law-and-order politics, both premised on the promotion of “personal responsibility” and the condemnation of public disorder, are thus directly correlated not just as institutional alternatives to managing the racialized poor (as Wacquant has suggested) but also via “the dense interrelations” between neoliberalism’s economic and (gendered) cultural projects. Specifically, Duggan argues that the rise of “family values” politics is necessary to fill in the caring gaps that the obliterated welfare state has left vacant. Building upon this analysis, we see that the neoliberal state can be harnessed to notions of “domesticating men” that operate simultaneously at two different levels: men, particularly poor and working-class men, are encouraged to do more care work within the home and to take on the burdens of social reproduction that arise when women themselves move into the sphere of paid work. At the same time, professional middle-class men are encouraged to constrain their commercial consumption in ways that are compatible with heterosexual domesticity and amative love.
In her book tracing the co-emergence of second-wave feminist attention to sexual violence and neoliberal agendas of incarceration, the political scientist Kristin Bumiller has similarly demonstrated the ways in which a myopic feminist focus upon the criminalization of rape and domestic violence during the 1990s contrasted with grassroots and early second-wave feminist concerns about women’s social and economic empowerment.78 Arguing that the neoliberal carceral imperative has had a devastating impact upon the ways that feminist engagement with sexual violence has been framed, Bumiller demonstrates that the reciprocal is also true: once feminism became fatally inflected by neoliberal strategies of social control, it could serve as an effective inspiration for broader campaigns for criminalization (such as the war on drugs). Bumiller observes that by the early 2000s, the neoliberal sexual violence agenda of feminism was increasingly being exported as part of American human rights policy, solidifying the carceral imperative within feminism domestically and spreading the paradigm of feminism-as-crime-control around the globe.
The evidence indeed suggests that contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns have been far more successful at criminalizing marginalized populations, enforcing border control, and measuring other countries’ compliance with human rights standards based on the curtailment of prostitution than they have been at issuing any concrete benefits to victims. For example, Nandita Sharma—one of various scholars and activists who have argued that anti-trafficking measures have been complicit with anti-immigrant policies—has critically considered the impact of anti-trafficking politics on women who have migrated from China to Canada. Unlike their male counterparts, migrating women and children migrants were often labeled as “victims of trafficking” by Canadian feminists who hoped to garner sympathy and legal status for them. For the Canadian minister of immigration, however, this instead gave him a reason to confine the women in state-run detention facilities and jails.79
In like fashion, Sealing Cheng has highlighted the ways that Filipina migrant sex workers in South Korea have been constrained by the very forces that purportedly seek to protect them—specifically, the criminalization of sex work and migration for sex work, and the practices of NGOs and government organizations that seek to enforce these. Svati Shah has similarly shown how the exportation of US anti-trafficking politics to India has been to the latter’s detriment, citing the 2005 ban against women dancing for tips in beer bars as an example. She explains that India’s tier 2 position on the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report likely motivated the ban, so as to not move down to tier 3 and potentially lose all nonhumanitarian aid from the United States, India would have to show that the country was making significant efforts to comply with “the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”80 Responding to related concerns, in 2008 Cambodia introduced anti-trafficking legislation ostensibly designed to suppress human trafficking and sexual exploitation. On the basis of observational research with female sex workers, Lisa Maher and her colleagues found that following the introduction of the law, there was an escalation in police crackdowns and brothel closures, with sex workers being displaced to streets and guesthouses, impacting their ability to negotiate safe sex and increasing their exposure to violence. Many sex workers and their children (alongside beggars, vendors, and other informal sector workers) were also arrested in the frequent street sweeps that accompanied passage of the new law.
Finally, as the human rights lawyers Anne Gallagher and Elaine Pearson have observed, “in countries and regions around the world, including Bangladesh, Central and Eastern Europe, Cambodia, India, Israel, Malaysia, Nepal, the Russian Federation, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand, it is common practice for victims of trafficking to be effectively imprisoned in government or private support facilities without being able to leave the shelter grounds beyond the occasional supervised excursion or trip to court.” While they note that shelters differ in terms of size, location, required length of stay, services provided, and populations served, in many cases, they report, the facilities are in fact little more than jails.82 As these scholars have demonstrated, the failure of anti-trafficking campaigns to understand the complexities of the very phenomenon with which they purport to be concerned has resulted in more perilous journeys for economic migrants, more dangerous working conditions for sex workers, and heightened coercion and control of the very women and children that they seek to protect. These examples are more than mere “unintended consequences” of feminist anti-trafficking campaigns; rather, as Bumiller has argued, they have transpired as a result of feminists directly joining forces with a neoliberal project of social control. This is true both within the United States, where pimps of all varieties can now be given lifelong prison sentences as convicted “sex traffickers” and sex workers’ clients are held criminally culpable for their actions,83 as well as elsewhere around the globe, where the United States’ tiered ranking of other countries has led to the tightening of borders internationally and to the passage of punitive anti-prostitution policies in numerous countries.
Most recently, with gathering feminist attention to so-called “domestic” forms of trafficking, in which the requirements of national and state border crossing are lifted, it has become clear that the shift from local forms of sexual violence to the international field back to a concern with policing US inner cities (this time under the guise of protecting women’s human rights) has provided critical circuitry for the carceral feminist agenda. As described in chapter 1, the 2005 reauthorization of the US Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act (TVPRA) established the crime of “domestic trafficking” on a moral and legal par with previous cross-border understandings of the crime.84 According to a Department of Justice summation of 2,515 human trafficking investigations conducted between 2008 and 2010, of 389 confirmed incidents of trafficking, 85% were sex-trafficking cases, 83% of victims were US citizens, and 62% of confirmed sex trafficking suspects were African American (while 25% of all suspects were Hispanic or Latino).85 Adding empirical detail to these statistics, US attorney Pamela Chen has noted that a full half of federal trafficking cases currently concern underage women in inner-city street prostitution.86 Both domestically and globally, US anti-trafficking policies have thus facilitated a sharp reversal of the trend toward the increasing legitimacy of sexual labor and the recognition of sex workers’ rights that prevailed up until the late 1990s.