Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

Trafficking in Persons: How America Exploited the Narrative of Exploitation

Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

Trafficking in Persons: How America Exploited the Narrative of Exploitation

Article excerpt

Table of Contents


I. Meaning-Making...................4

A. Fear and Loathing..........................5

B. Rebranding and the Creation of Illegality.........................9

C. Negotiating Meaning on the International Stage.......18

D. Bringing the Story Back Home.................22

II. Counting and Creating...................26

III. Exporting Trafficking..................38

Conclusion: Crises and Rebirth................46


United States policymakers have been addressing the phenomenon known as "trafficking in persons" for nearly two decades now, yet there is still deep disagreement over the meaning of the term.1 International organizations, governmental bodies, and advocates have used the term to describe forced prostitution, all prostitution, child marriage, child labor, sweatshop labor, smuggling, child sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation, chattel slavery, familial debt bondage, indentured servitude, and domestic work, among other things.2 In contrast, it is rarely depicted in popular media as anything but the paradigmatic image of the kidnapped girl forced into commercial sex, physically abused, and desperate to escape her captor.3 Trafficking appears to stand for everything and nothing all at once,4 and I argue that various actors have been able to capitalize on this imprecision to further their own political agendas. In particular, switching between the legal and non-legal uses of the term has enabled anti-trafficking proponents to use broad human rights language to lobby for policies that have politically unpalatable objectives at their core. This article examines that slipperiness and the ways in which it has been used to further various restrictive criminal and immigration policies. The purpose of the article is to clearly identify how this rhetoric has operated in law in order to provide a tool to understand its potential effect on current and future proposed anti-trafficking initiatives.

I argue that the malleability of the term "trafficking" stems from it having had no fixed meaning prior to its definition in law. Although it was used in ways that suggested a phenomenon that actually occurred in the world, the term was primarily used to evoke a feeling or trigger a response. Anxieties around different waves of global movement gave rise to various stories about women being lured into prostitution abroad and young children rampantly being kidnapped and abused.5 These stories were told using terms such as "white slavery" and "trafficking," and a cache of narratives and representations built up in association with these words. The stories were largely untrue or exceedingly rare, but their truth was never the point; they were used to evoke fear of something that could happen, not to describe something that did happen.6 Advocates drew on this imagery to urge fellow citizens to act and to lobby politicians for protective immigration, criminal, and prostitutionrelated laws. In response, a series of laws were created in the early 2000s, and it was those laws that truly defined trafficking as a phenomenon occurring in the world. In crafting this legal language, lawmakers necessarily had to circumscribe and define what acts would qualify as "trafficking" and who would be classified as victims.7

Thus, while securing legal prohibitions against "trafficking" was considered by many to be a success, it also narrowed what the term could mean-conflicting with the vast array of imagery that had come to be associated with its use. In the constant retelling of trafficking stories-particularly in venues accorded legal authority-pictures of trafficking also became part of the legal landscape. These images of ideal victims and criminals filled intellectual conceptual gaps in imagination where the law had not. This caused confusion around how the term should be defined but also created the opportunity for some to take advantage of that confusion. …

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