Guest post by Devony Schmidt, MPhil candidate in European Politics and Society at the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College. Her research explores the intersection of law and politics, analysing the diffusion of trafficking law across the US and judicial decision-making models in the European Court of Human Rights. Devony is starting a JD at Harvard Law School this autumn.

Review of Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender and Culture in the Law by Alicia W. Peters (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015)

Why does the United States’ approach to human trafficking have such a narrow focus on trafficking for sexual exploitation at the expense of other forms of trafficking? And what are the effects of this focus on victims as they navigate a complex and sometimes contradictory justice and support system? These are the core questions at the heart of Responding to Human Trafficking. Through a compelling ethnography, Peters presents a fascinating critique of the American justice and victim services system, largely allowing her varied informants to speak for themselves.

Peters organises her analysis of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) into three sections: the law ‘on the books,’ ‘in the mind,’ and ‘in action.’ By arranging her research in this way, she is able to effectively tease out the difficulties faced by individuals involved in both the prosecution of traffickers and the support and protection of victims―difficulties which have arisen in part due to conflicts of interest that occurred during the drafting of the laws. The TVPA, she shows, has a tiered structure involving three dichotomous elements. The challenges created by these three elements underpin her arguments throughout the book.

First, the TVPA provides operational (triggering victim benefits) and non-operational definitions of trafficking that, due to political manoeuvring at the time of drafting, conflate trafficking with prostitution. Second, the operational definition is itself bifurcated, such that trafficking for forced sexual exploitation is a unique and privileged category of trafficking. Third, there are distinct criminal statutes governing sex trafficking and forced labour, which creates inconsistencies regarding which individuals can be termed ‘victims’ of trafficking and which situations can actually be prosecuted as a crime of trafficking. This latter point is particularly salient: in fact, in the US, ‘an individual defrauded into forced labor could meet the definition of a victim of a severe form of trafficking… yet there is no prosecutable crime’ under the TVPA (p. 68). The distinction between sex trafficking and other forms of trafficking was retained in the statutes as a compromise with key individuals and groups involved in an abolitionist moral crusade against prostitution specifically, whether forced or voluntary, and this has far-reaching consequences on the ways the public and government officials perceive and address trafficking in the US.

Although her explanation of the historical development of the TVPA provides a helpful lens through which to analyse the implementation of the laws, Peters’ strongest contribution to the existing literature on trafficking law in the US lies in her analysis of (1) victim responses to their own trafficking situations and (2) the tensions between prosecutors and service providers, which can strongly impact victims after leaving the trafficking situation. She uses interviews with victims to highlight how, from the standpoint of victims, being trafficked into forced labour or forced prostitution, didn’t impact them as much as did the circumstances of that situation. Their stories suggest that the legal distinction in the TVPA between trafficking for sexual exploitation or for forced labour is unhelpful, and rather, that more focus on the psychological and physical abuse and isolation is needed when implementing victim support and pursuing justice.

Peters uses comments by prosecutors, government officials, and case managers to show how those involved in pursuing criminal convictions and in victim support believe they are fulfilling their duties to the best of their abilities, and yet, they are falling short of fulfilling victims’ needs. Her penultimate chapter’s discussion of the granting of Continued Presence permits to trafficking victims involved in an ongoing investigation and the granting of ‘T visas’ for those awarded victim status, including a nuanced explanation of the varying requirements for each, provides a compelling and disconcerting look at how even the most well-meaning individuals can become inwardly focused, sometimes at the expense of the victims themselves. This is one area where the Peters’ research can have an immediate, victim-centred impact: the shortcomings highlighted in the book are an opportune starting point for restructuring the existing system and re-training those involved in supporting trafficking victims in all capacities. The policy implications here are undeniable.

While I very much enjoyed this book, I found myself wanting to know more about the struggles many victims face in leaving their trafficking situation. Why are some re-trafficked, for example? Are their experiences navigating the justice system more similar or different to those interviewed in this book? Similarly, I wanted to hear more about the perspectives of the prostitution abolitionist activists. While Peters casts their involvement as key in the development of anti-trafficking laws, she doesn’t spend much time on their arguments nor does she interview any directly. Finally, it would have been useful for Peters to more clearly acknowledge trafficking for sexual exploitation as a global phenomenon and make connections to issues of victim impacts that go beyond the national borders of the US.

Peters has shed light on a critically under-studied area of human trafficking law, specifically through a victim and practitioner-centred approach. She’s set a high bar for future research in this field and brought attention to key areas for policy development. Responding to Human Trafficking is a sharply-written work with lessons for academics, policy makers, and service providers alike.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Schmidt, D. (2016) Book Review: Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex Gender and Culture in the Law. Available at: 2016/05/book-review-5 (Accessed [date]).