Guest post by Owain Johnstone, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. Owain’s PhD research looks at the development of human trafficking policy in the UK, exploring how the policy process has influenced what we understand trafficking to be. Follow Owain on Twitter.

Review of Human Trafficking: Contexts and connections to conventional crime, edited by Joan Reid (Routledge, 2016).

In the introduction to Human Trafficking, edited by Joan Reid,  Scott H. Decker suggests that human trafficking should be seen as one of several emerging types of crime organised by groups, whether formally or informally. He notes that a particularly important issue is that legal definitions of trafficking are poorly understood or only partly applied, implying that there are forms of trafficking not currently being given adequate attention (e.g. by law enforcement).

In this context, he outlines three principal contributions that criminologists can make to the study of human trafficking:

  1. An exploration of ‘the structure and collective processes of groups that engage in this crime’ [2]
  2. An examination of the motivations of traffickers
  3. The establishment of a knowledge base of preventive anti-trafficking measures

Decker thus appears to prioritise a better understanding of the dynamics of trafficking and the development of knowledge on how best to prevent it. Interestingly, the chapters that comprise this volume only partly respond to his prescription. Those that do (Chapters 5 and 6) concentrate on the dynamics of particular forms of trafficking, while the remaining chapters focus instead largely on perceptions of trafficking among law enforcement or the public.

Chapters 5 and 6 explore the dynamics of particular kinds of trafficking that the authors claim have been underexplored in the literature. Both chapters focus on trafficking that involves US minors or youth exploited in sex work. Chapter 5, by Joan Reid, Juliana Huard and Rachael Haskell, deals with family-facilitated juvenile sex trafficking, while Chapter 6, by Joan Reid, Alex Piquero and Christopher Sullivan, explores linkages between alcohol and marijuana use and commercial sexual exploitation among male youth.

The former succeeds in identifying several distinct markers of family-facilitated juvenile sex trafficking (in contrast to non-relative juvenile sex trafficking), while the latter finds a relationship between alcohol use and both ‘persistent’ and ‘chronic’ commercial sexual exploitation. Both chapters make it easier to identify specific groups potentially at risk of domestic sex trafficking so that interventions can be targeted appropriately.

The remaining chapters depart somewhat from Decker’s outlined approach, concentrating largely on how trafficking is perceived. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with police perceptions of human trafficking in the US. In Chapter 2, Amy Farrell, Rebecca Pfeffer and Katherine Bright investigate the extent to which police officers, faced with an unusual and little known crime with few institutional structures dedicated to it, rely on what they know about seemingly related crimes when approaching it. The authors suggest that officers rely on ‘schemata’ (frames of understanding) derived from other crime types (particularly prostitution) to guide their approach to trafficking.

This has enabled trafficking to be prioritised without the need to develop specific procedures or structures devoted to it, but at the same time it has hindered an understanding of the problem on its own terms. Typically, for example, it has led to a focus on trafficking cases where US citizens, often minors, are involved in sex work.

One way of mitigating such problems is to provide training to law enforcement officers specifically on trafficking. In Chapter 3, Claire Renzetti, Amy Bush, Marissa Castellanos and Gretchen Hunt investigate whether such training, in this case delivered to mid- or senior-level officers, makes a difference to perceptions of trafficking, finding some indication that it does, though with significant limitations.

In Chapter 7, Tasha Menaker and Cortney Franklin move away from the world of law enforcement to deal instead with public perceptions of victims of domestic sex trafficking. The authors focus on the level of culpability attributed to victims for the situations in which they find themselves. The resultant findings are complex and hard to interpret, revealing varying degrees of culpability and varying support for service provision depending on whether the victim in question has been trafficked, sexually assaulted, or subjected to intimate partner violence.

Chapter 8, by Tara Richards and Joan Reid, is somewhat different to the others, in that it does not report empirical work. Instead, the authors analyse literature on sex trafficking, identifying a disproportionate focus on male perpetrators and female victims – overlooking female perpetrators and male victims. They then undertake a detailed review of literature on female sex tourists and male sex workers in the Caribbean.  The authors show that the framing of female sex tourism in this literature has tended to be much more forgiving of the perpetrator than the framing of male sex tourism in other literature on sex trafficking. They further argue that this is mistaken, since female sex tourism equally involves exploitative, unequal relationships that cause great psychological and social harm to the male youth engaging in them.

This volume will certainly be of great interest to criminological scholars whose work intersects with trafficking, particularly to those with an interest in the USA. I found Chapters 2 and 8, on police perceptions of trafficking and female sex tourism, particularly convincing and stimulating. The volume as a whole demonstrates a range of methodological approaches, both qualitative and quantitative, that explore trafficking from a number of different angles and illuminate many of its aspects.

Having said that, the volume primarily concentrates on the trafficking of minors or young people for sexual exploitation. Apart from Chapter 8, the contributions focus on the US context and, generally, on victims who are US citizens. The contribution that the volume makes is therefore largely to the understanding of a particular subset of human trafficking cases - those that involve trafficking for sexual exploitation of American youth.

This is not at all to downplay the significance of the book. Decker comments that the collection ‘represents the best and most recent set of research findings on the topic [of human trafficking]’ [3]. He is certainly right to praise the quality of the contributions. If, however, his assessment is taken as an indication of research coverage, then it also points to the sheer scale of the territory that remains to be mapped.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Johnstone, O. (2017) Book Review: Human Trafficking: Contexts and connections to conventional crime. Available at: (Accessed [date]).