Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender, and Culture in the Law

Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender, and Culture in the Law

Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender, and Culture in the Law

Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender, and Culture in the Law


Signed into law in 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defined the crime of human trafficking and brought attention to an issue previously unknown to most Americans. But while human trafficking is widely considered a serious and despicable crime, there has been far less consensus as to how to approach the problem--owing in part to a pervasive emphasis on forced prostitution that overshadows repugnant practices in other labor sectors affecting vulnerable populations. Responding to Human Trafficking examines the ways in which cultural perceptions of sexual exploitation and victimhood inform the drafting, interpretation, and implementation of U.S. antitrafficking law, as well as the law's effects on trafficking victims.

Drawing from interviews with social workers and case managers, attorneys, investigators, and government administrators as well as trafficked persons, Alicia W. Peters explores how cultural and symbolic frameworks regarding sex, gender, and victimization were incorporated into the drafting of the TVPA and have been replicated through the interpretation and implementation of the law. Tracing the path of the TVPA over the course of nearly a decade, Responding to Human Trafficking reveals the profound gaps in understanding that pervade implementation as service providers and criminal justice authorities strive to collaborate and perform their duties. Ultimately, this sensitive ethnography sheds light on the complex and wide-ranging effects of the TVPA on the victims it was designed to protect.


Everyone up here [on Capitol Hill] knows that trafficking is
something that is bad and that trafficking is modern-day slavery and
therefore horrible, but [they] don’t really know what trafficking is,
and so you can totally mischaracterize it in so many different ways if
you’re inclined to do so.

—Victor, congressional staffer

A lot of it has to do with how we define trafficking, and even though
we have a federal definition I don’t think there’s true agreement as to
what trafficking is, as can be seen between all the advocates and all
the law enforcement agents.

—Audra, immigration attorney

In July 1997, four deaf and mute Mexican immigrants—three men and one woman—entered a police station in New York City and reported via sign language and written notes that they were indentured laborers. Their captors, Jose Paoletti Moreda and his son Renato Paoletti Lemus, oversaw a ring that smuggled fifty-seven men, women, and children into the United States. The fifty-seven individuals were forced to work eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, selling key chains and other trinkets on subways and in airports and then turning over their earnings to an “enforcer.” When they went out to peddle their wares, they were told not to return until they had $100 each and were beaten or sexually abused if they returned with insufficient funds or tried to escape. Living in two extremely crowded apartments in Queens, they had freedom of movement, but their “bosses” had confiscated their personal documents upon arrival in New York City and used them as a means . . .

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