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Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259

DOI 10.1007/s11186-012-9165-9

Carceral politics as gender justice? The traffic in women

and neoliberal circuits of crime, sex, and rights
Elizabeth Bernstein

Published online: 12 February 2012

# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract This article draws upon recent works in sociology, jurisprudence, and
feminist theory in order to assess the ways in which feminism, and sex and
gender more generally, have become intricately interwoven with punitive agendas in contemporary US politics. Melding existing theoretical discussions of
penal trends with insights drawn from my own ethnographic research on the
contemporary anti-trafficking movement in the United Statesthe most recent
domain of feminist activism in which a crime frame has prevailed against
competing models of social justiceI elaborate upon the ways that neoliberalism and the politics of sex and gender have intertwined to produce a carceral
turn in feminist advocacy movements previously organized around struggles
for economic justice and liberation. Taking the anti-trafficking movement as a
case study, I further demonstrate how human rights discourse has become a
key vehicle both for the transnationalization of carceral politics and for the
reincorporation of these policies into the domestic terrain in a benevolent,
feminist guise. I conclude by urging greater and more nuanced attention to
the operations of gender and sexual politics within mainstream analyses of
contemporary modes of punishment, as well as a careful consideration of the
neoliberal carceral state within feminist discussions of gender, sexuality, and
the law.
Keywords Feminism . Law . Politics . Transnationalism . Human rights

E. Bernstein (*)
Department of Sociology, Barnard College, Columbia University, 3009 Broadway,
New York, NY 10027, USA


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What do we want? A strong trafficking law! When do we want it? Now!

Call and response cry at National Organization for Women rally for New York
State Trafficking law which would increase criminal penalties against
prostitutes customers, New York City, February 1, 2007
Trafficking is not a poverty issue. Its a law enforcement issue.
Gary Haugen, Director of the International Justice Mission (quoted in
Landesman 2004: 30)
When we govern through crime, we make crime and the forms of knowledge
historically associated with itcriminal law, popular crime narrative, and
criminologyavailable outside their limited original subject domains as powerful tools with which to interpret and frame all forms of social action as a
problem of governance.
Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime, 2007: 17
In recent years, a diverse array of social theorists has endeavored to explain the
rise of mass incarceration in the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Western
Europe) since the 1970s, linking contemporary carceral strategies of social
governance to the spread of neoliberal economic agendas, to late modern
cultures of control, to new modes of racial domination, and to the emergence
of new political paradigms of governing though crime.1 In their groundbreaking 1992 article, The New Penology, law and society scholars Malcolm Feeley and
Jonathan Simon (1992) first identified the series of interrelated shifts in penal
ideology that began to transpire in the 1970s and 1980s, noting in particular the
increased social reliance upon the imprisonment of entire populations deemed dangerous, as opposed to the apprehension and rehabilitation of particular individuals.
Since that time, successive waves of scholars have sought to understand the broader
significance of mass incarceration as a strategy of social control in light of Michel
Foucaults earlier prediction that the modernist institution of the penitentiary would
likely give way to more diffuse modes of governance (Foucault 1979). Whatever
explanations they have offered for the surprising arc that modes of punishment have
taken, most theorists have tended to agree with Foucaults more general assertion that
the study of penal policy is of paramount significance to an understanding of the
organization of power more generally, and must therefore move from the margins to
the center of contemporary social theory.
Concurring with this assessment, numerous feminist theorists have begun to trace
a parallel history of the evolution of punishment, one that foregrounds the role played
by sex and gender in processes of penal transformation. They have described the
social implications of rapidly accelerating incarceration rates of female offenders
(Sudbury 2005; Schaffner 2005; Haney 2004) as well as the control over womens
lives and bodies that is increasingly exercised at a cultural level through a gendered

See, for example, Wacquant (2009a, b), Garland (2001a), Sudbury (2005), and Simon (2007). Garland
excepted, most theorists begin from the premise that the incarceration rate has augmented dramatically
while crime and victimization rates have declined. For a powerful articulation of these disparate trends, see
Zimring (2007).

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and ubiquitous fear of crime (Madriz 1997; Wood 2005).2 Intriguingly, they have
also explored the surprising ways that feminist activism itselfespecially in its
hegemonic, US guisehas often served to facilitate, rather than to counter, the
carcerally controlling arm of the neoliberal state. Scholars of domestic violence and
rape, for example, have traced the rise of carceral politics within second wave
feminism (Gottschalk 2006; Bumiller 2008; Coker 2001; Guber 2007; Halley
2008a; Halley 2008b), describing the ways in which feminist campaigns against
sexual violence have not only been coopted by, but in fact been integral ingredients
to the evolution of criminal justice as an apparatus of control.
This article draws upon recent works in sociology, jurisprudence, and feminist theory
in order to assess the ways in which feminism, and sex and gender more generally, have
become intricately interwoven with punitive agendas in contemporary US (and by
extension, global) politics. Melding existing theoretical discussions of penal trends with
insights drawn from my own ethnographic research on the contemporary anti-trafficking
movement in the United Statesthe most recent domain of feminist activism in which a
crime frame has prevailed against competing models of social justiceI elaborate upon
the ways that neoliberalism and the politics of sex and gender have intertwined to
produce a carceral turn in advocacy movements that were previously organized around
struggles for economic justice and personal liberation. Taking the anti-trafficking
movement as a case study, I further demonstrate how human rights discourse has
become a key vehicle both for the transnationalization of carceral politics and for folding
back these policies into the domestic terrain in a benevolent, feminist guise.
The discussion of carceral feminism that I present below is in no way intended to
suggest that all existing feminismsmuch less, feministsare committed to a carceral
agenda. For example, even within the mainstream of contemporary US feminism, a
liberationist vision still prevails around issues such as reproductive rights, the flagship
issue of the liberal-left end of the political spectrum.3 Around questions of sexual
violence, however, including but not limited to the issue of human trafficking, a
carceral agenda has indisputably prevailed. As the cultural theorist Roger Lancaster
has observed in his recent book, Sex Panic and the Punitive State, since the 1960s,
feminists and other liberals have steadily moved rightward on questions of punitiveness and criminal justice, particularly around issues of sex (Lancaster 2011, p. 211).
The analysis that follows derives from a review of the sociological and feminist
literatures on sex, gender, and carcerality as well as my own multi-sited ethnographic
research at state- and activist-sponsored policy meetings, conferences, and strategy
sessions. Between 2005 and 2009, I attended 72 events with an ideologically diverse
sample of both secular feminist and evangelical Christian anti-trafficking activists in
Washington DC and New York and conducted 28 in-depth, face-to-face interviews
with movement leaders. While my focus in this essay is primarily upon the secular
feminist groups that have been most influential in recasting sexual commerce in terms
of the traffic in women, the analysis presented also draws from my longstanding
scholarly and political engagement with sex worker activists who reject the
Women, especially non-white women and women from the Global South, are the fastest growing segment
of the incarcerated population, typically for drug offenses (Haney 2004; Sudbury 2005; Bohrman and
Murakawa 2005).
Although as commentators such as Saletan (2003) have argued, even here a formerly ample political
agenda around reproductive freedoms has shifted right by being scaled back and privatized.


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trafficking frame and who address issues of migrant sexual labor under different
political rubrics (see e.g., Agustn 2007; Ahmad 2005; Jagori 2005).4 Finally, my
argument is informed by a decade of prior ethnographic investigation that I conducted
with a broad sample of sex-workers, clients, and state agents throughout the late
1990s and early 2000s (Bernstein 2007b), which demonstrated that the rubric of
trafficking is inadequate to describe sex workers highly diverse experiences of
work and exploitation, a finding consistent with a growing body of social scientific
inquiry (see, e.g., Brennan 2004; Kempadoo 2005a; and Cheng 2010).
In the sections of this essay that follow, I first trace the broad connections between
carceral politics and neoliberalism that have been articulated in several influential
texts in recent sociological and jurisprudential theory. Next, I pull out the undertheorized gender and sexuality dimensions of these arguments through discussions of
the contributions of a new wave of feminist socio-legal scholars and of my own
ethnographic work on the contemporary anti-trafficking movement in the United
States, tracing the emergence of what I term carceral feminisma cultural and
political formation in which previous generations justice and liberation struggles
are recast in carceral terms.5 I conclude by urging more nuanced attention to the
operations of gender and sexual politics within prevailing theorizations of contemporary modes of punishment, as well as a more careful consideration of the neoliberal
carceral state within feminist discussions of gender, sexuality, and the law.

Carceral politics as neoliberal governance: a theoretical overview

Although there have been numerous works across the spectrum of the social sciences
that have situated recent transformations in criminal justice in terms of the broader
social significance of these trends, for purposes of my discussion in this article I begin
by considering three highly influential texts that have emerged within contemporary
social theory to interpret the late twentieth century carceral turn in US and Western
European politics: David Garlands The Culture of Control (2001a), Loc Wacquants
Punishing the Poor (2009b), and Jonathan Simons Governing Through Crime
(2007). While other commentators have focused primarily upon the political and
social consequences of mass imprisonment (Western 2006; Manza and Uggen 2006;
Garland 2001b), on mass incarceration as a project of racial domination (Peterson,
Krivo and Hagan 2006; Davis 2003; Tonry 1995), or upon articulating and advancing
policy alternatives (see, e.g., Jacobson 2005; Petersilia 1998; Davis and Rodriguez
2000), I have chosen to focus upon the three aforementioned volumes because each one
aspires to a broad theorization of the relationship between contemporary modes of
punishment and more general trends within late-capitalist culture and political economyincluding those that pertain to gender and sexuality.
David Garlands 2001 volume, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in
Contemporary Society, still figures amongst the most ambitious and influential works
in this vein in its bold assertion that the pattern of social, economic, and cultural

For a fuller discussion of evangelical Christian anti-trafficking advocacy, see Bernstein (2007a); Bernstein
(2010); Chuang (2010); and Weitzer (2008).
For previous discussions of this concept, see Bernstein (2007a) and Bernstein (2010).

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relations that emerged in America, Britain, and elsewhere during the last three
decades of the twentieth century ushered in a cluster of risks, insecurities, and
control problems that have played a crucial role in shaping our changing response
to crime (p. viii). Taking law, discourse, and policy together as his multi-faceted
object of analysis, amongst Garlands key contributions is to catalogue exhaustively
the emergence of similar trends within two distinct national contexts, the US and
the UK, challenging prevailing assumptions of American exceptionalism and illuminating shared, underlying patterns of structural transformation. According to
Garland, an array of social dislocations common to late modernity has contributed
to heightened disorder and to crime, as well as to a stark reorientation in penal
trends away from social remedies and towards politically conservative versions of
expressive justice. In the ascendant worldview that characterizes this trend, crime
is not regarded as a problem of economic deprivation but rather of inadequate social
controls, in which human beings are naturally inclined to commit crimes unless
inhibited from doing so by social authorities. It is this shared, conservative
understanding of the root causes of crime that has inclined politicians and
publics towards a revival in punitive sanctions such as the death penalty, as
well as towards forms of expressive justice like the public naming and shaming
campaigns that currently circulate, in particular, around sex crimes (p. 9).
Garlands discussion grants special attention to the professional middle classes
who have abandoned their prior allegiance to rehabilitative penal welfarism, noting
that those who were formerly its staunchest advocates have done little to oppose the
contemporary drift towards punitive policies. Reconfigured norms of gender and
sexuality are understood by Garland to play a significant role in this shift, including
the privatization of middle class family life and the entry of middle class women into
the domain of the paid workforce. These changes have not only produced a new,
objective vulnerability to crime, in Garlands view (with empty and isolated homes
producing increased opportunities for crimes to occur), but also a sense of middle
class precariousness, ontological insecurity, and a desire for compensatory forms of
social control (p. 155). Although Garlands claims here are contentious ones (about
which I have more to say below), his analysis usefully points towards the cultural
underpinnings of punitive politics and a widening embrace of the carceral worldview,
particularly amongst the affluent middle classes.
While seeking to explain a similar set of trends within contemporary culture and in
emergent paradigms of criminal justice, Loc Wacquants Punishing the Poor (2007b)
makes a more pointed causal argument about the political roots of these recent widesweeping transformations. According to Wacquant, what underpins contemporary
trends in punishment and incarceration is not the host of cultural attributes that
Garland associates with late modernity, but rather neoliberalism as a specific
political and economic strategy in which the carceral state supplants previous regimes
that were organized around the provision of material welfare. For Wacquant,
neoliberalism does not represent a shrinking state apparatus as is often assumed,
but rather a shift in the predominant form and functions of the state in which new penal
policies are a core feature. Because neoliberal economic strategies redirect public
moneys away from the provision of goods and services, they in fact require an enhanced
penal apparatus to contain newly disenfranchised populations. It is for this reason,
Wacquant argues, that wherever neoliberalism reigns ascendant, carceral politics will


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too, an analysis that helps to explain the rise of carceral politics throughout much of
Europe as well as in the United States.6
Wacquant maintains that this is a shift with broad social implications that extend
far beyond the economic, with the gendered nature of the transition from one state
form to another constituting a key component of his argument. Neoliberalism, in his
view, can best be described as a remasculinization of the state in which its soft social
bosom is transformed into a hard penal fist, one that dictates that poor women
transition from welfare to workfare while their male counterparts are relocated from
ghetto to prison. In addition to accounting for the divergent fates of differently raced,
classed, and gendered bodies under conditions of neoliberalism, Wacquant also
considers the operations of gender in symbolic as well as material ways. For
Wacquant, the discursive production of the sex offender in contemporary politics
and culturea singularly demonic figure whose threat to ideals of familial domesticity plays a critical role in legitimating the new penal orderexemplifies the former,
in addition to the productive aspects of contemporary crime discourse more generally.
As Wacquant argues, noting how the specter of the sexual predator successfully
relocates sexual menace outside the confines of the nuclear family, The hyperbolic
execration of the stranger pedophile on the public stage serves to symbolically
purify the family and reassert its established role as a haven against insecurity even as
accelerating neoliberal trends in the culture and economy undermine it (p. 235). In a
full chapter devoted to the symbolic efficacy of sex crimes, Wacquant seeks to
demonstrate how the moral abjectness of the sex predator provides an urgent and
perpetually refreshed motive for the turn to fierce neutralization and vengeful
retribution that has characterized U.S. penal policy since the late 1970s (p. 214).
Whereas both Garlands and Wacquants explanatory models highlight the relationship between neoliberal economic policies, the increased social disenfranshisement of
the poor, and rising rates of incarceration, Jonathan Simons theorization of contemporary crime policies highlights the impact of such policies upon white middle class lives
that are themselves increasingly sequestered within fortress-like gated communities and
SUVS that resemble armored Humvees. Simon emphasizes the structural similarities
that have emerged across boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity to justify
carceral strategies of social control, whether that confinement occurs within the
walls of ones own suburban home or through literal imprisonment. In this
view, mass incarceration is revealed to be not so much a new social strategy
for the domination of African Americans or the disciplining of the labor force
(which should be regarded as effects, rather than causes, of contemporary crime
policies) but rather as a policy solution to the political dilemmas of governing
through crime (p. 159). For Simon, it is the emergence of governing through
crime as a political strategy that is of primary importance for social theorists to
consider; the building of prisons, as well as the procurement of particular bodies to
fill them, are but secondary and derivative phenomena.

While Wacquants theoretical modeling of the relationship between neoliberalism and the punitive state
has been amply debated (see, e.g., Campbell 2011; Mayer 2011; Lancaster 2011), I am less interested in
critiquing his theory for its economic determinacy than in exploring the connections Wacquant posits
among neoliberalism, carcerality, sex, and gender.

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Like Wacquant, Simon emphasizes the symbolic and productive (rather than
simply repressive) dimensions of contemporary crime control policy, and disputes
David Garlands assertion that rising incarceration rates are due to an actual acceleration
in crime. Yet in contrast to Wacquant, Simon maintains that crime and governance are
not primarily about the control and domination of a racialized underclass. Instead,
challenging views of power that extend in clear, straightforward lines from the social
center out to the periphery (p. 18), Simon argues that new versions of liberal,
middle class freedom are secured not against but precisely through the domain
of contemporary penal policy. As Simon notes, one important vehicle of middle class
governing through crime has been the rise of the paradigmatic victim subject.
Highlighting the growing political centrality of the contemporary victims rights
movement, Simon argues that the crime victim has supplanted the rights-bearing
citizen as the idealized legal subject of our time.
Finally, Simon observes that feminism has itself played an active role in advancing
the new tough-on-crime frame, particularly around the issues of rape and domestic
violence. In this regard, he embraces legal theorist Ada Grubers insight that the raped
woman as crime victim has emerged as the idealized political subject of secondwave feminism (p. 108). Following Gruber and other feminist critics, Simon notes
how the feminist anti-rape and domestic violence movements, which were previously
oriented towards grassroots and social service remedies, have increasingly turned to
the terrain of criminal justice (as emblematized by the passage of the 1994 Violence
Against Women Act) to pursue their political goals.
Although Simons analysis is a provocative one in its attunement to the
interplay between contemporary gender and carceral politics, his simultaneous
implication that carceral strategies are a reaction to second-wave feminist social
transformations (a perspective that is shared by Garland and Wacquant), and something that feminists have themselves actively fought for, raises a number of intriguing
questions. Why, in both Simons and Garlands interpretive frames, would feminists
respond in reactionary ways to the very social changes that their own activism had
wrought? And why, viewed through Wacquants theoretical lens, would feminists
themselves be advocating for a shift from the soft maternal bosom to the masculinized penal state? What, in other words, is feminists own stake in the sexual and
carceral politics of neoliberalism?
Although Simon, Garland, and Wacquant rightly identify gender and sexuality as
important galvanizing factors in the changing modes of governance that they
describe, they fail to theorize their operations in systematic or sufficiently nuanced
ways. Despite the varying perspectives these theorists offer, in all three texts the
advent of the remasculinized penal state is rendered as a neoliberal reaction to a vague
set of social anxieties wrought by new economic conditions as well as by feminism,
a perspective that dovetails with the authors tangible nostalgia for the sets of
gendered social and economic relations that characterized a prior era of modernindustrial capitalism. Although each of the three theorists under consideration
observes that contemporary carceral politics are enabled through the specter of
sexualized violence (whether or not they grant feminists a pivotal role in the construction of this framework), they neglect to explain why the threat of sexual violence
is a uniquely effective cultural vehicle for ushering in this transition. Despite the vast
theoretical contributions that these theorists make in foregrounding the role of


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carceral politics in neoliberal reconfigurations of state power, and the authors frank
acknowledgment that new configurations of sex and gender are also integral to these
transitions, there is still much to be explained about how and why contemporary
sexual and political-economic transformations intersect.
To fill in the blanks that their work has left vacant, we need to delve more deeply into the
intersections of neoliberalism, the carceral state, and the politics of sex and gender. Why
have carceral feminist frameworks gained prominence while previous welfarist and liberationist feminist visions have declined? How do feminist versions of sexual and carceral
politics get conjoined to drown out other social visions? To unravel these dilemmas, I turn
now to an emergent body of scholarship on the carceral turn in second wave feminism as
well as to my own ethnographic research on contemporary campaigns against the traffic in
womenthe most recent domain of feminist activism in which a crime frame has gained
rapid ascendance, both within the United States and transnationally.
Carceral feminism confronts the traffic in women
On a cold and windy February afternoon, I approach the fifth in a series of
lunchtime rallies on behalf of a new New York State law that would stiffen the
potential criminal penalties against men who are convicted of patronizing a
prostitute, from 90 days to a year in prison.7 When I arrive at Foley Square, I
encounter a group of fifty or so women (mostly White or Asian, and all
conspicuously middle class as indicated by their stylish attire and educated
patterns of speech) as well as a gathering pool of journalists and onlookers.
Present too are several influential City and State-level political figures who
have been invited by the organizers to speak.
Women from the rallys two sponsoring feminist organizations (NOW-NYC and
Equality Now) as well as a smattering of other groups are gathered on the steps behind
the speakers, holding up signs from their respective organizations and handing out
press packets. Periodically, they coax the rest of the crowd to join together in a chant:
What do we want? A strong trafficking law! When do we want it? Now! Or, Elliot
Spitzer, take the lead! A strong trafficking bill is what we need!8
In their depictions of the sex industry, all of the speakers at the rally deploy the
new anti-trafficking buzzwords (victim, predator, perpetrator, exploiter),
along with stock anecdotes of innocent women having their papers confiscated,
being forced to sell their bodies, and being trapped and tricked. The narratives of
womens victimization are coupled with an insistence upon the need to focus on
demand and to pursue aggressively the perpetrators of sexual violence. Criminal
law is rendered as a surprisingly powerful and effective deterrent to mens bad
behavior: We need to have laws that will make men think twice about entering the

The bill, New York SB 5902, passed with broad support from New York feminist organizations on June 6,
Spitzer was ironically a strong ally of the New York feminist movement before resigning from office on
March 13, 2008 for patronizing a prostitute (Powell and Confessore 2008).

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commercial sexual exploitation business, one passionate City Council member

The final speaker at the event is Angela Lee from the New York Asian Womens
Center. Fashionable and fortyish, dressed in a black leather jacket and fitted
slacks, she makes no mention of the role played by global poverty in the
dynamics of trafficking or prostitution, instead framing the issue in terms of
the sexual integrity of families. This is a family issue, she declares outright,
especially as Chinese New Year approaches and there are so many victims
families who wont be able to celebrate.9 Lee goes on to link the dangers faced
by trafficking victims to New Yorks States lack of success thus far in imposing
a law that would provide severe enough criminal penalties for traffickers and
pimps. She concludes her speech with the emotional declaration that We need
to punish the traffickers and set the victims free!
From my fieldnotes, February 2007, New York City
Although a decade of feminist research and activism has addressed the role of the neoliberal
state in criminalizing the survival strategies of poor women, and of poor women of color in
particular (see, e.g., Davis and Shaylor (2001); Davis (2003); Schaffner (2005); Sudbury
(2005); Haney (2010)), the significance of feminisms own widening embrace of the
neoliberal carceral state has only begun to come into focus. Two recent genealogies of
second wave feminism by political theorists Marie Gottschalk (2006) and Kristin
Bumiller (2007) have sought to shed light upon this trajectory, providing important
elaboration and grounding for Jonathan Simons observation that feminismand in
particular, recent feminist activism around questions of sexual violencehas
been a crucial enabler of the late-capitalist carceral turn. The contemporary
womens movement in the United States helped facilitate the carceral state, explains
Gottschalk, noting that some of the very same historical and institutional factors that
made the US womens movement relatively successful in gaining public acceptance
(including its firm foothold in elite politics, the absence of competing Marxist currents,
and a strong national tradition of political liberalism) were important building blocks for
the carceral state that emerged simultaneously in the 1970s (p. 115). Arguing that the
neoliberal carceral imperative has had a devastating impact upon the ways that feminist
engagement with questions of sexual violence have come to be framed, Bumiller (2008)
suggests that the reciprocal is also true: once feminism became fatally inflected by
neoliberal strategies of social control, it could serve as an effective inspiration for
broader campaigns for criminalization (such as the war on drugs).
While Gottschalk and Bumiller single out US feminism as an exceptional case,
scholars such as Ticktin (2008), Kempadoo (2005b), and Kulick (2003) have pointed
to similar trends within an array of different national contexts. Writing about the
confluence of French feminism and anti-immigrant sentiment, for example, Miriam
Ticktin notes that contemporary feminist concern with issues of sexual violence is
often recognized only through the framework of racial, cultural, and religious
Such claims disregard a body of social scientific evidence that has found that women and girls often enter
into prostitution at their families behest, so as to provide better for their parents and children; see, e.g.,
Montgomery (2001); Agustn (2007); Bernstein (2007b).


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difference (2008, p. 865). As Ticktin demonstrates, by fighting sexism with

racism, feminist campaigns around sexual violence have become increasingly powerful accessories to French state interests in border control and policing (Razack
1995, p. 72, quoted in Ticktin 2008, p. 865).
Another recent domain of feminist activism in which the carceral turn has become
apparent has been in gathering political and cultural attention to the traffic in
women. Until the mid-1990s, an incipient sex workers rights movement had sought
to decriminalize and to destigmatize womens sexual labor and to gain rights and
protections for sex workers from within a labor frame, but in more recent years these
efforts have been undercut by a bevy of new federal, state, and international laws that
equate all prostitution with the crime of human trafficking and which impose harsh
criminal penalties against traffickers and prostitutes customers. As the legal scholar
Alice Miller has noted, in the late 1990s, this pivot first occurred within the context of
transnational feminist organizing at the United Nations, an attention that brought with it
a focus on crime control methods and rescue, to the detriment of the promotion of the
full range of rights needed by trafficked persons. According to Miller, the 2000 UN
Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons created international law in the context of
crime controlnot human rights or labor protections (Miller 2004, p. 32). Within the
United States, although some anti-trafficking activists continue to the pay lip service to the
goal of decriminalizing and securing economic rights for sex workers, the overwhelming
thrust of current feminist attention has been similarly oriented towards wideningrather
than eliminatingthe sphere of criminal justice intervention in the sex industry.
Although trafficking as defined in international protocols and in current federal law
could conceivably encompass sweatshop labor, agricultural work, or unscrupulous labor
practices on military bases in Iraq, it has been the far less common instances of sexually
trafficked women and girls that have stimulated the most concern by feminist activists,
the state, and the press. In the 2000 UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons, for
example, trafficking is understood to include the exploitation of the prostitution of
others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or
practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs (United Nations Office
on Drugs and Crime 2000). Yet as Miller points out about the Protocol definition,
prostitution occupies an asymmetrical place in the list as distinct from the specific
criteria for force or coercion that qualify other forms of labor. Miller shows how in this
context, two intertwined themes emerge: the site of sexual exchange as a priority for state
intervention and a criminal response as the main response to exploitation (2004, p. 32).
Feminist anti-trafficking activists have themselves acknowledged that a focus
upon sexual violation, rather than the structural conditions of exploited labor more
generallyin addition to their strategic partnership on this issue with evangelical
Christianshas been crucial to transforming it into a legal framework with powerful
material and symbolic effects (Bernstein 2007a; Bernstein 2010; Chuang 2010). At
events such as the February 2007 anti-trafficking rally that I attended at Foley Square
in New York City, the political efficacy of conjoining the threat of sexual violence
with calls for an expanded carceral state apparatus was apparent, with political leaders
and feminist activists in strong agreement that human trafficking was primarily an
issue of family values, sexual predation, and victimized women and children.
Commentators who have critically assessed the rise of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States have often attributed its ascendance to what they perceive to

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be the moralistic sexual politics of its two principal groups, radical feminists and
conservative Christians.10 They have argued that both groups harbor archaic and
violated visions of femininity and sexuality (Saunders 2005), a sexual ideology that
is pro-marriage and pro-family (Weitzer 2007), and that they share an antipathy
towards nonprocreative sex (Soderlund 2005). As the political scientists Dorothy
Buss and Didi Herman (2003) have further demonstrated, by the late-1990s, feminists
and evangelicals were well-poised to forge transnational alliances around this issue,
as a greater reliance upon NGOs by the UN encouraged many newly formed
evangelical NGOs to enter into the international political fray.
Other critics have pointed to the strong parallels between feminist uprisings around sex
trafficking in the current moment and those that surrounded the White Slavery scare in the
postbellum years of the last century, which similarly derived their impact through tropes of
violated femininity, shattered innocence, and the victimization of womenandchildren
(see e.g., Kempadoo 2005a, b; Foerster 2009; Agustn 2007; Doezema 2010). Commentators such as Roger Lancaster (2011) and Carole Vance (2010), meanwhile, have
situated contemporary mobilizations again trafficking in terms of successive waves of
sex panics that have occurred at periodic intervals in the United States through the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The marked historical resonance between the
current US anti-trafficking campaign and the Meese Commission anti-pornography
hearings that took place during the 1980s (in which conservative Christians and a segment
of the feminist movement once gain joined forces for the sake of sexual reform) has also
been explored (Weitzer 2007; see also Vance 1997; Duggan and Hunter 1995).
Although ample critical attention has been devoted to the conservative legacy of
feminist sexual politics that underpins contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns, most
accounts have stopped short of looking at another sociologically significant linkage
between the feminist and evangelical Christian activist constituencies that has catapulted
the traffic in women to its current position of political and cultural prominence
specifically, a carceral and far from historically inevitable paradigm of state engagement,
both domestically and internationally. Left unaddressed by most commentators are the
questions of why a vision of sexual politics that is premised upon a version of
(feminist) family values should reign ascendant at this particular historical moment,
or how these values might couple with broader sets of political and economic interests.
Whereas theorists such as Garland, Wacquant, and Simon astutely describe the rise of the
carceral state but provide only a partial sketch of the dynamics of sex and gender that have
facilitated its emergence, an equally significant deficit resides in analyses of sexual
politics that fail to consider adequately feminist activists newfound and nearly ubiquitous
insistence upon carceral versions of gender justice.11 In contemporary anti-trafficking
campaigns as in neoliberal governance more generally, the left and right ends of
the political spectrum are joined together in a particular, dense knot of sexual and
carceral values. A consideration of the rise of carceral feminism alongside other
dimensions of neoliberal governance will allow us to unravel this tangle of factors.

The term radical feminist may be largely a misnomer given a political trajectory that has carried many
of the original activists associated with this point of view to prominent positions in national and international governance, including within the Bush White House (see Bernstein 2010).
In this regard, Lancaster (2011) constitutes an important exception.


Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259

Neoliberalisms (feminist) family values

In the 1970s our feminist goal was liberation: liberation from discrimination at
work, liberation from sexual constraints, liberation from forced sex, forced pregnancy and forced domestic service. Our focus was less violence per se, than the
function of violence in keeping us down. Feminist marches were not about
punishing men or protecting women; if anything, we denounced .punishing
women and protecting men. We were determined to occupy our cities, our jobs,
our homes, our lives in courageous defiance of punitiveor protectivecurfews
and controls. We knew our movement was transgressive and, thus, dangerous, but
we had no illusion about the sanctity or security of home.
Gail Pheterson, Tracing a Radical Feminist Vision From the 1970s to the
Present (2008)
As the feminist theorist Gail Pheterson has recently observed, a previously hegemonic
feminist critique of family and home has receded at precisely the same time that the
movements embrace of carceral politics has escalated, with a drift towards punitive or
protective curfews and controls. Although this latter shift might be explained simply in
terms of the new middle class punitiveness that David Garland has described, the
mainstream feminist embrace of family values and its primary focus upon extrafamilial
forms of sexual violence is sociologically significant in and of itself. Such a trend stands in
marked contrast to the analyses offered by classic sociological works such as Kristin
Lukers Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (1985) and Arlene Steins The
Stranger Next Door (2002), as well as to Thomas Franks celebrated journalistic
account, Whats The Matter with Kansas? (2005), which posited diverse ways in
which the right-wing adhesion to family values could be read as a class-based
reaction to the hegemonic sexual cultures of elites. In these volumes, activists
ideological commitments are underpinned by their material circumstances, with
conservative investments in sexual politics attributed to the gendered class strategies
of those the global economy has left behind.
Yet as Garland, Wacquant, and Simon have all observed, and as my own research on
the contemporary anti-trafficking movement demonstrates, neoliberal carceral politics
and the conservative sexual politics that are their accompaniment are also increasingly
situated within the liberal-leaning, professional middle classes. In a previous article
(Bernstein 2010), I argued that in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns, it is
ironically secular feminists who are advocating for family values, together with a
new-middle class contingent of evangelical Christians who are engaged in a sexually
modernizing project that literally transports them to the furthest corners of the global
sex industry. Two recent shifts in feminist and conservative Christian sexual politics
have made their current alliance against sex trafficking possible: a secular feminist
shift from a focus upon bad men inside the home (sexually abusive husbands and
fathers) to sexual predators outside of it (traffickers, pimps, and clients), and the
feminist-friendly shift of a new generation of evangelical Christians away from
sexually improper women (as prior concerns with issues like abortion suggest) to a
focus upon sexually improper men. For both constituencies, the masculinist institutions
of big business, the state, and the police are reconfigured as allies and saviors, rather than
the enemies of migrant sex workers, and the responsibility for trafficking is shifted from

Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259


structural factors and dominant institutions onto individual (often racially coded)
criminal men. To rework slightly Gayatri Spivaks famous formulation regarding the
gendered logics of postcolonial politics, in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns, it
is white women who have joined forces with key sites of institutional power in order to
save brown women from brown men (Spivak 1988).
While secular feminists have no doubt also been drawn towards anti-trafficking
advocacy by the opportunities that this work presents for professional advancement
and travel (see, e.g., Halley 2006; Grewal 2005; Agustn 2007), important, too, is the
potential that contemporary feminists perceive in this issue to symbolically enhance
their own power in domestic sphere heterosexual relationshipsa power that the
global sex industry is understood to erode. Seeing prostitutes shapes mens view of
what sex is, who women are, and how they should be treated, remarked one white,
middle-class activist at a recent anti-trafficking event that was sponsored by the
feminist anti-trafficking NGO, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
The idea that you can contain the value system of prostitution, and it will only affect
those women, or those women in that country, and that it wont spill over into society
as a whole is an illusion, suggested another. As the British cultural theorist Jo
Doezema has written in regard to western feminists wounded attachment to the
third world prostitute, the injured body of the third world trafficking victim in
international feminist debates around trafficking in women serves as a powerful
metaphor for advancing certain feminist interests, which cannot be assumed to be
those of third world sex workers themselves (2001, p. 16; see also Brown 1995).
The link between global sex trafficking and the gendered power relations of
heterosexual domesticity is also made explicit in a recent collection of essays
published by a feminist anti-trafficking NGO entitled Pornography: Driving the
Demand in International Sex Trafficking. In one essay, the activist Chyng Sun
emphasizes the damage that commercialized sex does to private sphere, heterosexual
relationships when it serves as the new standard for how all women should look,
sound, and behave (2007, p. 245). In another recent feminist collection, Not for Sale,
the author Kristen Anderberg (2004) issues a condemnation of the global sex industry
after describing how watching pornographic videos with her male lover lead to
debilitating body issues and to plummeting self esteem. In the same way that a set
of material and symbolic interests in heterosexual marriage undergirded the sexually
puritanical nineteenth-century feminist battles against White Slavery, abortion
rights, and even birth control (see, e.g., Gordon 1982; Walkowitz 1982), so too do
contemporary feminist activists harbor a set of investments in family values and
home that are decipherable in terms of the global interconnections of late-capitalist
consumer culture. While contemporary discussions of the impact of the sex industry
on normative heterosexual relations have ample historical precedent, the expanding
scope and reach of sexual commerce under conditions of globalization, or what one
influential anti-trafficking activist has termed the prostitution of sexuality (Barry
1995), have served to rapidly accelerate feminist concerns.
For contemporary anti-trafficking activists, one key ambition is to make the
institution of heterosexual marriage more egalitarian and more secure by restoring
an amative sexual ethic to sexual relations. Although anti-trafficking activists come
from both heteronormative, liberal-feminist lineages as well as more radical
lesbian-feminist traditions (as illustrated, for example, by the alliance between


Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259

NOW-NYC and Equality Now at the 2007 rally), what binds the two groups to
one another, as well as to their evangelical Christian counterparts, is their shared
commitment to a relational, as opposed to a recreational sexual ethic (Bernstein
2007b). More pivotal than the heterosexual/lesbian-feminist divide of generations
past (see, e.g., Bunch 1972; Morgan 1973; Echols 1989), the conviction that sexuality
should be kept within the confines of the romantic couple serves to cement a political
alliance between ideologically disparate constituencies. As one feminist activist
explained to me in recounting the initial forging of the alliance between the divergent
groups that constitute the anti-trafficking coalition, A whole consortium from the
farthest left to the farthest right was in favor of making all prostitution trafficking.
What was really interesting is the coalition of people a coalition that included
Salvation Army and the lesbian-feminist Equality Now, and CATW up in New York
and Michael Horowitz whos very conservative. Thats new politics. I had never
before seen a group like that.12
From the perspective of anti-trafficking feminists, it is thus not the changing
gender roles wrought by feminist social transformations that have created new social
insecurities (contra Garland, Wacquant, and Simon), but rather the sexual revolutions
of the 1960s and 1970s that have served to alter the balance of gendered power by
creating extra-familial sexual temptations for men. The renowned anti-trafficking
activist Donna Hughes thus attributes the existence of human trafficking not only
to prostitution, but also to the advent of a culturally liberal and permissive attitude
towards sex that generates mens demand for sexual services (May 2006).13 Another
anti-trafficking activist that I interviewed about her engagement in the topic similarly
sketched her perception of feminists sexual dilemma in broad strokes, explaining that
through TV commercials, through billboards, through marketing, the sexuality
continuously keeps increasing where there is no protection anymore over our
physical bodies, there are no more parameters, everything is acceptable. A third
feminist commentator who is active in contemporary anti-trafficking debates has
expressly attributed the traffic in women to the mainstreaming of prostitution,
pornography, and sexually explicit mass media (Clarke 2004). These activists are
not mistaken in their identification of a new consumer-driven paradigm of sexuality
that has co-emerged with other late-capitalist cultural transformations and that might
best be defined as recreational, rather than relational in its underlying ethic. What is
ironic and surprising is the extent to which feminist anti-trafficking activists have
embraced a pro-familial strategy for battling this trend, one that is itself intricately
interwoven with neoliberal commitments to capitalism and criminalization.
Rather than regarding the heterosexual nuclear family as another institution of
male domination to be abolished (and itself a key incarnation of the traffic in
women14) contemporary anti-trafficking discourse situates the family as a privatized
Horowitz, who is employed by the neoconservative think tank, the Hudson Institute, was a pivotal figure
in cementing the anti-trafficking coalition during the Bush presidency (see Hertzke 2004).
Hughes serves as the Elinor M. Carlson endowed Chair of Womens Studies at the University of Rhode
Island and has issued multiple reports in national and international arena on the traffic in women. She is
also a regular contributor to the conservative journal, The National Review.
In her classic essay on the Traffic in Women, the feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin drew upon the
works of Marx and Engels, Claude Lvi-Strauss, and Jacques Lacan (in addition to a wealth of crosscultural data) to argue that the linchpin of womens oppression resides in the social conventions of marriage
and kinship (Rubin 1975).

Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259


sphere of safety for women and children that the criminal justice system should be
harnessed to protect. It was thus that one invited speaker at another CATW antitrafficking event, a young women who had previously worked in the sex industry and
who therefore described herself as a survivor of sex trafficking, attributed this
experience to a combination of no father figure and an abundance of sexualized
mass media. Conversely, she signaled that she had successfully overcome her ordeal
by pointing out that she was now married and working full time at a good paying,
real job. In contrast to an earlier moment in radical-feminist sexual politics, one that
sought to link the sexual exploitation of prostitution to questions of violence against
women more generally, including within the home (see, e.g., Morgan 1970; Barry
1979; MacKinnon 1989), in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns it is specifically
non-familial forms of heterosexuality that have become the exclusive political targets.
This commitment to the home as safe haven undergirds what the feminist theorist
Inderpal Grewal has described as the gender of security in the early twenty-first
century United States (2006). A gender-specific emblem of the sequestered middle class
lives that theorists such as Jonathan Simon have also evoked, Grewal identifies the figure
of the security mom as one who seeks to harness the power of a securitized state
apparatus to protect herself and her children. Akin to Grewals analysis, my ethnographic
observations with feminist anti-trafficking activists reveal a specifically gendered set
of investments in the neoliberal carceral state, one that is intricately interwoven
with activists own social locations as racially and class-privileged women. At
the meetings with the anti-trafficking activists that I attended, the interlocking
of multiple structures of privilege with a prosecutorial bent was manifest in
various waysfrom the professional settings of the conferences (at the
American Bar Association, at the headquarters of the New York County Lawyers
Association, at assorted white shoe law firms) to the sets of interpersonal connections
that activists drew upon in their strategizing sessions. Are there any women judges that
are there for us? asked one activist at the Lawyers Association meeting. Are we on
talking relations with the wife of the governor? queried another. The professional
upper-middle class orientation of anti-trafficking activism that I observed in my research
is also consistent with research on the class profiles of anti-prostitution activists in other
national contexts (see, e.g., Ho 2005; Jeffrey 2002) and of contemporary transnational
feminist activism more generally (Eisenstein 2009; Desai 2005).
As members of the class fraction that is most likely to reap strong material and
symbolic rewards from marriage, anti-trafficking activists are heavily invested in the
maintenance and reproduction of this status and are ready to enlist the state apparatus on
behalf of the gendered and sexual interests that are most pertinent to themselves: a version
of feminist family values that is premised upon liberal understandings of formal equality
between women and men, and the safe containment of sexuality within the pair-bonded
couple.15 As with Grewals analysis of the security mom, these women utilize and
promote the carceral state in order to securitize the sexual boundaries of home.
The feminist embrace of carceral politics and the articulation of these politics
through a pro-familialist ideal of gender and sexuality were evident at the meetings of
Demographic research has shown that whereas high educational attainment and the capacity for
economic independence were once marital deterrents for women, highly educated white women are now
the most likely group to be married (see, e.g., Martin 2006; Goldstein and Kenney 2001).


Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259

the anti-trafficking caucuses of NOW-NYC and the AAUW that I attended between
2006 and 2008. At a November 2006 conference on Violence Against Women that
was co-sponsored by the AAUW and other feminist organizations, several hundred
professional women, predominantly white, spent the day discussing the necessity of
abolishing prostitution for women's equality, while dozens of Black and Latina
women dressed in catering uniforms circulated amongst them arranging tables and
chairs and serving drinks. The keynote speaker was a lawyer from the feminist NGO,
Equality Now, who took the podium after being very graciously introduced as a
former prosecutor of sex crimes and a mother. Visibly pregnant with a prominent
diamond ring on her left finger, this well-coiffed and well-dressed lawyer reminded
her audience of the important deterrent effects of the criminal law, and conveyed the
horrors of human trafficking as follows:
Id like to tell you the story of Christina, who was a victim of human
trafficking. She came here as a 19 or 20 year old woman in response to an ad
for what she thought was a babysitting job. And when she arrived at JFK airport
she was then informed that the babysitting job wasnt available anymore.
Of course she was forced to work in a brothel. And she describes that
experience with the same words that any of us would use to describe it. She
describes the sex of prostitution as disgusting, as degradation, and profoundly
traumatic to her. And what I want to talk to you about is some of the lasting
effects are for her, after she escaped the experience. She is infertile. She can
never have children. [From my fieldnotes, November 2006]
Nearly identical narratives were presented at the multiple anti-trafficking conferences
that I attended throughout the course of my fieldwork, the only significant alteration
being the victims name.16 Yet there is much to unpack in this exposition of the harms
of trafficking though the presentation of Christinas story, which in its sheer
generality suggests that it is at least partially fictionalized and at best a strategically
constructed composite case. Particularly notable are the moral and political
legitimacy afforded to domestic care work as late-capitalist informal sector
employment,17 the invocation of a single gendered (and uniformly negative) experience of the sex of prostitution,18 and the construal of reproductive failure as the
worst possible harm that could result for female victims. While elements of this
narrative undoubtedly can and do happen to real individuals, as a representation of
human trafficking the scenario described was far from the most empirically prevalent
case (Feingold 2005; Kempadoo 2005a; Bales 1999). Even more curiously, according
to case files compiled from the United States Department of Justice, no trafficking
Other events at which strikingly similar stories were told include the CATWs End Demand conference
at the U.N.s Commission on the Status of Women meetings on March 2, 2007, the CATW Abolishing
Sexual Slavery from Stockholm to Hunts Point conference held at the New York City Bar Association on
November 6, 2008, and the conference on Sex Trafficking and the New Abolitionists, held at the
Brooklyn Museum on December 13, 2008.
Although by some estimates trafficking for domestic work has been found to be more prevalent than
trafficking into the sex sector (see, e.g., Feingold 2005), the former is more compatible with professionalclass womens gendered interests in the home.
There is an abundance of critical feminist scholarship that demonstrates the contrary; see, e.g., Bernstein
(2007b); Agustn (2007); Chapkis (1997); Brennan (2004).

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case matching this description has ever been prosecuted (US Department of Justice
2011). The lawyers simultaneous commitments to the carceral state, the capitalist
service sector, and the ideology of feminist family values perfectly paralleled
the underlying neoliberal logic that united these realms, in which the social
inequalities that globalization has wrought are legitimate so long as the sexual
boundaries of middle-class family life can be maintained.
At a discussion focused upon ending demand for sex trafficking at the Commission
on the Status of Women meetings that I attended at the United Nations in March of 2007,
the link between sexual and carceral politics was once again revealed. At this meeting
dedicated to problematizing mens demand for the services of sex workers, the
panelists used the occasion to directly showcase how the carceral state could be
effectively harnessed to achieve amatively coupled and sexually egalitarian nuclear
families. The opening speaker from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
(CATW) explicitly hailed the five white, middle class men in the room as exemplars
of a new model of enlightened masculinity and urged the audience members to to bring
their husbands, sons, and brothers to future meetings. The model of prostitution and
trafficking that the CATW panelists invoked bore little if any connection to structural or
economic factors, rendering prostitution wholly attributable to the actions of bad men:
husbands within the family who might appeal to the sexual services of women outside of
it, or bad men outside the family (coded as non-white and foreign) who might entice
women and girls within it to leave.19 Although the CATW regards itself as a progressive feminist organization, members displayed no hesitation in their appeals to a
punitive state apparatus. As the panel chair repeatedly emphasized during her sharply
condemnatory presentation about heterosexual mens purchase of sex, The only
thing that prevents recurrence is fear of arrest.
Although numerous studies have shown that the arrest of clients serves primarily
to drive prostitution indoors rather than to eradicate it (OConnell Davidson 2003;
Brock 1998; Bernstein 2007b), what was at stake for the CATW activists were the
broader symbolic effects that a politics of criminalization could offernot simply in
turning the figure of the sex predator into a grotesque parody, as Wacquant has
arguedbut also for delegitimizing markets in female sexual labor and the commercialization of sexuality more generally. As I have argued elsewhere (Bernstein
2007b), the state is thus able to assume a feminist rationale for arresting those who
stand in the way of neoliberal agendas of urban restructuring and the removal of race
and class Others from public space.
In my fieldwork with feminist activists, the utility of the carceral state for securitizing the middle class familyand more specifically, for domesticating heterosexual
menwas also manifest in frequent appeals to the case of Sweden as an exemplar of
enlightened anti-trafficking policy. The criminalization of male sex purchasers, a
policy model first implemented in Sweden in 1998, is often referred to by transnational feminist activists as the Swedish Plan in order to convey its feminist origins
and impact, since Sweden is considered by many to be the most gender-egalitarian
country in the world. It was thus that at a subsequent CATW panel that I attended on
Agustn (2007) has described the anxieties that circulate around trafficking in terms of displaced
concerns about women leaving home for sex. Here, I highlight feminists concerns about mens, and
specifically husbands extra-domestic sexual pursuits.


Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259

Abolishing Sex Slavery: From Stockholm to Hunts Point, the Swedish policy of
criminalizing the clients of sex workers was endorsed by speakers who not only
applauded Swedens reputation for gender equality, but who explicitly referenced the
Swedish welfare states commitment to promoting men to be home with their children
at a young age. Left unremarked upon in the transnational dissemination of this carceral
strategy is that Sweden itself embraced it only after its hallmark welfare state (which
earned it its feminist reputation in the first place) had been seriously weakened in the
1990s (Bernstein 2007b; Hobson 1999).20
In a related vein, feminist theorists of neoliberalism such as Lisa Duggan (2003)
and Kate Bedford (2009) have pointed out the ways in which the ideology of family
values becomes particularly critical when other possibilities for social relations are
eclipsed. Marriage as an institution is grounded in the privatization of social
reproduction, along with the care of human dependency needs, through personal responsibility exercised in the family and in civil societythus shifting costs from state agencies
to individuals and households (Duggan 2003: p. 14). The demise of the welfare state
and the ascendance of law and order politics, both premised upon the promotion of
personal responsibility and the condemnation of public disorder, are thus directly
correlated not just as institutional alternatives to managing the racialized poor (as
Wacquant has suggested) but via the dense interrelations among neoliberalisms
economic and (gendered) cultural projects (Duggan 2003). Whereas Wacquant identifies but does not explain the shift to the masculine penal state or the familialist
sexual politics that are its accompaniment, Duggan and Bedford demonstrate that the
rise of family values politics is necessary to fill in the caring gaps that the
obliterated welfare state has left vacant. They demonstrate that the neoliberal state
can be harnessed to notions of domesticating men that operate simultaneously at
two different levels: men, particularly poor and working class men, are encouraged to
do more care work within the home and to take on the burdens of social reproduction
that arise when women themselves move into the sphere of paid work. At the same time,
professional middle class men are encouraged to constrain their commercial consumption in ways that are compatible with heterosexual domesticity and amative love.

A neoliberal circuitry of crime, sex, and rights

The above examples serve to illustrate how the rise of a carceral feminist
framework is connected to the collapse of a social welfare state in more ways
than oneboth as a new social strategy for regulating race and class others and
as part of a neoliberal gender strategy that securitizes the family and lends moral
primacy to marriage. Viewed as such, it becomes clear that as neoliberal economic
policies extend their reach around the globe, they will serve to diffuse a new criminal
justice-focused social agenda (as Wacquant has aptly demonstrated) in tandem with a
new political paradigm of gender and sexuality that is premised upon the (feminist)
Components of the Swedish criminalization model have since been adopted in countries ranging from
Norway and Iceland to South Korea, the Philippines, and Chile. Although the Swedish law specifically
criminalizes only the customers of prostitutes (but not sex workers themselves), transnational feminist
activists and nation-states that claim the Swedish mantle have used it to widen the sphere of criminalization
to encompass both sex workers and their clients (Bernstein 2007b).

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family value of amative, sexually egalitarian couples. This new paradigm has been
disseminated through such disparate means as stepped up laws and controls against
sex offenders (including proposals for a new pan-European sex offender registry), the
insertion of men into private-sphere caring labor via official World Bank development
policy, and burgeoning international campaigns against the traffic in women.21
Indeed, one of the reasons that anti-trafficking campaigns have become such a
galvanizing issue for feminists, evangelicals, and other activists is because the
interlinked sexual, carceral, and economic commitments that they comprise can be
harnessed to the now hegemonic internationalist discourse of womens human
rights. As the political theorist Kristin Bumiller (2008) has observed, human rights
conventions attempt to improve conditions for women by putting pressure on states to
promote serious and effective enforcement of criminal laws against interpersonal
violence (p. 136). With womens human rights understood as pertaining exclusively to questions of sexual violence and to bodily integrity (but not to the gendered
dimensions of broader social, economic, and cultural issues), the human rights model
in its global manifestation has become a highly effective means of disseminating
feminist carceral politics on a global scale (see also Grewal 2006; Miller 2004).
Within the context of campaigns to combat the global traffic in women, this
efficacy has been manifest in the United Statess tier ranking and economic sanctioning
of countries that fail to pass sufficiently punitive anti-prostitution laws, in the transnational activist push to criminalize male clients demand for sexual services, in the
tightening of international borders as a means to protect potential trafficking victims,
and in the implementation of new restrictions upon female migrants capacity to
travel (Chuang 2010; Kempadoo 2005b; Ticktin 2008; Chapkis 2005). Feminist
anti-trafficking activists have lobbied hard for all of these measures in addition to
strongly endorsing the US governments anti-prostitution pledge, which stipulates
that NGOs that do not explicitly take a stand in condemnation of prostitution will lose
their capacity to receive US funding (Chuang 2010; Saunders 2005; NSWP 2006).
Feminists have also offered their support for the vigilante brothel raids that evangelical
Christian groups such as the International Justice Mission have conducted in countries
such as India and Cambodia in partnership with the local police.22 Although Wacquant,
Garland, and Simon neglect to identify the political efficacy of human rights discourse
for extending the nationally rooted carceral agendas that they describe, as Bumiller
(2008), Halley (2008), Grewal (2006) and other critical feminist scholars have
observed, it has become an indispensable tool for spreading the increasingly mainstream paradigm of feminism-as-crime-control internationally.
From the perspective of U.S.-based anti-trafficking advocates, the shift to the
international human rights field has also been crucial in relocating a prior set of
internecine political debates amongst feminists about the meaning of prostitution and
pornography (one thath had divided the US feminist movement throughout the 1980s
On the spread of harsh criminal laws against sex offenders in Europe, see Sex laws: Unjust and
Ineffective (2009). On the heteronormative underpinnings of World Bank development policy, see
Bedford (2009).
The International Justice Mission is the largest evangelical Christian anti-trafficking organization in the
United States, with upwards of eighty full-time paid staff members and operations in 14 countries.
Additional discussion of the International Justice Mission is provided in Bernstein (2007a); Bernstein
(2010); and Thrupkaew (2009).


Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259

and early 1990s, and in which liberationist factions were emerging triumphant) to a
humanitarian terrain in which the anti-prostitution constituency was more likely to
prevail.23 As one of the founding members of a prominent feminist anti-trafficking
NGO explained to me during an interview, framing the harms of prostitution and
trafficking as politically neutral questions of humanitarian concern about third world
women, rather than as issues that directly impacted the lives of Western feminists,
was pivotal to waging the fight against commercial sexuality successfully:
There was an earlier wave of consciousness about exploitation that took both
pornography and prostitution almost together as a kind of commercial sexual
exploitation of women. And they got battered down by ACLU types who
were the same people who were also against prosecution of rape because it was
discriminatory prosecution against people of color. It wasnt even just
priorities. It was really just a basic understanding of human rights. After that [we]
went underground and then trafficking brought these issues right back.
(From my fieldnotes, December 3, 2008).
Another human rights activist that I interviewed further observed that by the time of the
1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, the frameworks around both trafficking and
prostitution had irrevocably shifted: Beijing is where trafficking as a labor issue was first
transformed into a sexual violence and slavery issue. According to these activists,
feminists who had participated in earlier waves of domestic struggle for the state curtailment
of prostitution and pornography had initially been hampered by other liberal constituencies
(including divergent feminist factions and the ACLU) who were opposed to the potentially
discriminatory effects of a criminal justice frame. But by resituating their issues in terms
of the traffic in women overseas and as a violation of international commitments to
womens human rights, they were able to wage the same sexual battles unopposed.
The most recent twist in the transnational feminist campaign against human trafficking has occurred with gathering attention to so-called domestic forms of sex trafficking. The 2005 reauthorization of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA)
established the crime of domestic trafficking on a moral and legal par with previous
cross-border understandings of the crime (United States Department of State 2005).
With the aim of shifting enforcement priorities towards street prostitution in urban
areas, the TVPRA established $5,000,000 in federal grants to local law enforcement
agencies to investigate and prosecute sex trafficking within the United States.24 Some
commentators have speculated that the shift from an international to a domestic focus
in US anti-trafficking policy has occurred because the US government has consistently failed to identify the overwhelming numbers of transborder victims that it
previously claimed existed (see, e.g., Brennan 2008).25

On the feminist pornography debates of the 1980s and 1990s, see Vance (1993; 1997) and Duggan and
Hunter (1995).
The 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking very broadly as the recruitment,
harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.
(United States Department of State 2000)
Since the passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the government has downgraded its
estimates of US transborder victims, from 50,000 to 14,50017,000 people per year (US Government
Accountability Office 2006). In cases of domestic trafficking, the force requirement is waived if the
women in question are underage.

Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259


According to a US Department of Justice summation of 2,515 human trafficking

investigations conducted between 2008 and 2010, of 389 confirmed incidents of
trafficking, 85% were sex trafficking cases, 83% of victims were US citizens, and
62% of confirmed sex trafficking suspects were African American (while 25% of all
suspects were Hispanic/Latino) (US Dept. of Justice 2011). The racial impact of antitrafficking laws is also heightened by the fact that young men who are convicted of
pimping can now be given 99-year prison sentences as domestic sex traffickers
(versus the prison sentences of several months that were previously typical), while
migrant sex workers are themselves increasingly arrested and deported for the sake of
their protection (Chapkis 2005; Bernstein 2007b; Urban Justice Center 2009). Both
domestically and globally, US anti-trafficking policies have thus contributed to
unprecedented police crackdowns upon people of color who are involved in the
street-based sexual economy (including pimps, clients, and sex-workers alike) and
they have facilitated a sharp reversal of the trend towards the increasing legitimacy of
sexual labor that prevailed up until the late 1990s (see also Day 2010). In this way,
contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns can be viewed as an effective, feminist
embodiment of neoliberalisms joint carceral and sexual projects, ushering in agendas
of family values and crime control while asserting new understandings of gender
justice and womens human rights.

If the postmaterialist politics tends towards good and evil, crime is a natural
metaphor for evil.
Theodore Caplow and Jonathan Simon, Crime and Justice (1999, quoted in
Gottschalk, 11)
This article has sought to synthesize and push forward arguments made by
recent social theorists concerning the emergence of the carceral state and its
relationship to more general patterns of cultural and political transformation.
Drawing upon diverse accounts of the relationship between neoliberalism and
the turn towards punitive modes of justice in contemporary social policy, I have
highlighted the implicit gendered dimensions of this shift as well as its disparately raced and classed impact, melding theories of carcerality and punishment
with insights drawn from my own empirical research on campaigns against sex
trafficking. I have sought to show how an understanding of recent transformations
within feminism, and within the politics of sex and gender more generally, is critical
to the broad-sweeping analyses of the neoliberal carceral state that theorists such as
Garland, Wacquant, and Simon have formulated. Via successive encodings of issues
such as rape, sexual harassment, pornography, sexual violence, prostitution, and
trafficking into federal and now international criminal law, mainstream feminists
have provided crucial ideological support for ushering in contemporary carceral
transitions (Halley 2006, p. 21). Most recently, the burgeoning discourse of womens
human rights has served to re-circuit feminist attention from the domestic spheres of
home and nation to an expanding international stage, asserting carceral versions of
feminism on a global scale.


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It is important to understand the underlying gendered and sexual dynamics that

have inspired this shift in feminist emphasis and strategy. Assumptions such as
Garlands, Simons, and Wacquants that late-modern conditions of gender flux
have led to a reactive embrace of carceral politics on the part of the once liberal
middle classes fail to consider the gendered interests that underpin feminist advocacy
on behalf of the neoliberal carceral state. Whereas Garland correctly asserts that late
capitalist social transformations have destabilized certain aspects of middle class life
and fomented middle class punitiveness, he misidentifies not only the reality of
criminal threat but also the gendered and sexual instabilities that are the source of
this trend. In contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns, it is not changing gender
roles in the abstract but rather reconfigured norms of male sexuality that are
perceived as the greatest threat to middle class feminist and evangelical Christian
activists, for which both criminal justice and family values are perceived to be the
remedies. Although Wacquant astutely demonstrates the correlation between the
eclipse of the welfare state and the advent of the penal state (as well as the
pivotal symbolic role played by the sex offender in ushering in these transitions) he fails to account for feminists own investment in facilitating this shift.
My own ethnographic research in combination with other feminist critiques of
sexuality and neoliberalism helps to clarify this allegiance, demonstrating how
the intersecting race, class, and gender locations of a prominent contingent of
Western feminists have created deep political investments in the contemporary
security state and in the middle class family form.
Finally, Simon usefully reveals the ways in which the contemporary security state
serves not only to police the poor but also to create middle class understandings of
securitized freedom, pointing to the important role played by feminism in advancing
this project. My research on the contemporary anti-trafficking movement helps to
illuminate precisely how and why feminists have reoriented their political aims towards
carceral ends, situating ideological transitions in terms of the new political-economic
horizons that feminists are confronting. Contemporary feminist commitments to both
family values and to a law and order agenda are facilitated by a neoliberal state
apparatus in which poor as well as middle class lives are increasingly governed through
crime, and in which the privatized family is designated as the optimal institution for
social support. Under such circumstances, the impetus to find non-economic means to
equalize the dynamics of sexual power within the familysuch as governing
through crimebecomes compelling to many feminist (and evangelical Christian)
social justice advocates. Rather than pursuing materially redistributive strategies,
the versions of feminism that have survived and thrived are those that deploy
the mutually reinforcing sexual and carceral strategies that a reconfigured neoliberal
state is likely to support.26
Most generally, this article has shown how attention to social actors carceral
commitments is pivotal to understanding the politics that have joined together left
and right, and feminists and evangelicals, on sexual issuesand vice versa. I have

In the case of anti-trafficking campaigns, such materially oriented strategies would likely include
challenges to current international debt and lending policies, global commodity markets, and the economic
development policies that create incentives for women to engage in risky migration and exploitative sexual
labor in the first place.

Theor Soc (2012) 41:233259


used the case study of human trafficking to illuminate how neoliberal sexual politics
and carceral politics work together, highlighting the cross-ideological alignments that
have occurred around both sex and crime. As theorists such as Garland, Wacquant,
and Simon have persuasively argued, in the present historical moment, sex is often
the vehicle that joins left and right together around an agenda of criminal justice.
My own analysis of contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns has demonstrated how
the reciprocal is also true: criminal justice has often been the most effective vehicle
for binding feminists and evangelicals together around historically and socially
specific ideals of sex, gender, and the family. To fully understand the rise of the
carceral state and its relationship to late capitalist social transformations, we need a
feminist analytics of neoliberalism that is cognizant of how mutually reinforcing
sexual and carceral strategies have come to circulate together.

Acknowledgments I would like to thank Raewyn Connell and two anonymous reviewers for their
helpful commentary on an earlier draft of this article. For their feedback, I am also grateful to Kerwin
Kaye, Nicki Beisel, Lauren Berlant, Linda Zerilli, and members of the Spring 2011 faculty seminar at the
University of Chicago's Center for Gender Studies.

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Elizabeth Bernstein is Associate Professor of Womens, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Sociology at
Barnard College, Columbia University. She is co-editor of Regulating Sex: the 28 Politics of Intimacy and
Identity (New York: Routledge 2005) and the author of Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the
Commerce of Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Her current book project, Brokered
Subjects: Sex, Trafficking, and the Politics of Freedom, explores the convergence of feminist, neoliberal,
and evangelical Christian interests in the shaping of contemporary policies around trafficking and