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

Alicia W. Peters

Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 244 pp.

Reviewed by April D. J. Petillo

In densely packed text useful for anthropologists, legal scholars, policy makers, and service providers alike, Peters asks big questions and provides equally big answers. At its core, Responding to Human Trafficking interrogates the relatively new legal approaches to the age-old, cross-cultural phenomena of engineering people to work, against their will, for the benefit of another. Framed as the distinctions between how law is written, understood and implemented (7), Peters 1) historicizes and situates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) within a particular sociocultural context which influences legal praxis, 2) articulates the ways that the broadly written TVPA is most readily conceptualized across professional roles that engage with people impacted and 3) pinpoints the blind spots inherent in implementation based on distorted readings of the law. In the process, Peters maps how deep cultural beliefs about sex, gender, and victimization overshadow the broad anti-human trafficking legal aims. She argues that this redirects the focus to gender specific prostitution—forced or not—and results in service provision out of sync with the complex realities of victim/survivors of trafficking.

Peter’s points are well supported and she meets her charge to trace these cultural and symbolic frameworks within existing legislation and illuminate where they are “replicated through the interpretation and implementation of the law” (5). And, perhaps most importantly when examining law and policy built on dominant cultural moral codes, Peters provides an extensive genealogy of the legal process in the law’s development and the professional roles engaged in its current implementation. Considering the author’s contention that the current cultural fascination with how sex, gender and coercion may conflate in trafficking law, it is refreshing that Peters does not place primary focus on victim/survivor stories of struggle and painful victimization while being trafficked. Though some scholars rely on these personal stories of victimization to document, bear witness, and ultimately inspire, the details of such experiences can also be used in a way that is titillating and harmful. Peters’ refusal to provide such details keeps the focus on the structural issues and provides an example of how to engage feminist anthropological methodology prioritizing the community. It is brave to do so when working across disciplines that sometimes re-victimize by concentrating so closely on personal, detailed stories of entrapment.

There is much to appreciate in Peters’ treatment of the TVPA legal (and socio-cultural) history as well as the efforts to situate her extensive research methods. However, foregrounding so much of both ultimately creates less room and clarity for the areas where the work has the most impact, such as the tensions between prosecutors and service providers. Another area of impact to expand is Peters’ assessment of where efforts to develop victim/survivor support and justice lack attention to the psychological and physical abuse or traumatic isolation experienced in such clandestine criminal operations. More discussion here could make this text even more accessible for the very implementers that Peters seems to want to influence. Finally, this seems to be an indirect call. While this work is undoubtedly impressive in scope, more contemplation about the social and cultural implications of citizenship status and our assumptions about safety is needed. Where else does our cultural imaginary limit safety and protection where trafficking is concerned? More intersectional work is needed in this area, and its absence in this text is somewhat distracting overall. Peters’ analysis of the everyday nuances involved in the interpretation and implementation of anti-trafficking law would benefit from such additional contemplation.

Undoubtedly, Peters’ text is an important work that blends academic insight with legal considerations. Responding to Human Trafficking is relevant and provides an analysis that clearly has an immediate, victim-centered impact on the ways that we think about trafficking as well as anti-trafficking law and policy. This work is a needed contribution to ongoing theoretical and political discussions in trafficking related fields, among practitioners and in upper level college classrooms. The author pinpoints starting places for restructuring the existing system and reorienting the cultural gaze that excludes the broader category of trafficking victim/survivors of all categories from supported recovery. Perhaps most importantly for feminist anthropologists of all specialties, Peters effectively employs feminist methodologies and theories to begin building better answers. Alongside other applied anthropologists who contribute to our understanding of trafficking and the toll the phenomena takes on a community, the ethnographic contribution detailed here is a model for improving services across agencies and social service organizations. Peters also provides what very well could be a foundational text in future work to examine the connection between culture, crime and our legal responses to trafficking in its entirety.

April D. J. Petillo is an Assistant Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies Emphasis, at Kansas State University. Her research interests include contemporary targeted violences and exploitation, colonial and conquest logics, transnational feminisms, feminist ethnography, activist scholarship,community defined justice and the law.

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