The Myths of Sex Trafficking

This is the introduction to The Myths of Sex Trafficking: A Reader on Law Enforcement and Carceral Feminism.** Download the reader here and find the full length articles here.

This reader was put together in the shadow of the 2018 Minneapolis Superbowl. With a major sporting event like this there is—among other things—an intensified deployment of law enforcement, a rapid push to “clean up” neighborhoods, and a purported increase in sex trafficking, used in part to rationalize the increased policing.

For two centuries moral panic and reformist policies around sex trafficking have been used to abuse, imprison and control sex workers, women of color, immigrants and so-called deviant women. The term “traffic in women” emerged in the U.S. as a replacement for “white slavery”, a racist myth proliferated by white politicians who were panicking about the abolition of slavery and “racial impurity”.

In the 20th century, social-purity reformers (or moral hygenicists) used anti-trafficking campaigns for their eugenicist projects to “clean up” American cities of criminals and the unruly and to lock women into reformatories and prisons—of course categories like “criminal” have always been racialized and therefore have always most affected women of color.

Anti-trafficking campaigns have consistently conflated prostitution with trafficking, which has furthered the criminalization and stigmatization of sex work. Today, actual victims of trafficking are often most harmed by the work of anti-traffickers who rely on police and state intervention. Even when portrayed as a victim (such as Cyntoia Brown) those who are trafficked are treated as prisoners and their stories largely go untold. They are pushed through victimization to criminalization to institutionalization.

What if the humanitarian words we are so used to hearing don’t mean what they claim? What if those being rescued don’t need rescuing? What if the options of rescue are doing more harm than good? What does it mean to align oneself with the white supremacist legacy of anti-trafficking?

What follows are three articles tracing the history of anti-trafficking through social-purity reformers to the cooperation of evangelical Christians and liberal (white) feminists to moral panics around major sporting events. These texts are intended to demystify the vast misunderstandings and misconceptions that exist around the beliefs of sex trafficking. In an attempt to make the articles somewhat more digestible, they have been slightly abridged (indicated by […] where content has been removed). The citations and footnotes have also been removed as these seem like academic conventions that most readers probably don’t care about. It should also be noted that the term “women” is used throughout as the subject/object of inquiry, in which we would unquestionably include transwomen—with race further structuring levels of harm. Moreover, all sex workers, no matter their gender identity, are targeted in some regard by anti-trafficking campaigns.

“Surveillance and the Work of Antitrafficking” follows the early history of anti-trafficking, specifically in the context of colonialism and “social hygiene” movements. The article examines the shift away from the term “white slave traffic”, replaced by the more “universal” and “neutral” term “traffic in women”, and the explicit and implicit white supremacy of this mythology. The article looks at the international body the League of Nations and their various reports related to their efforts to surveil and control the bodies and movement of women.

“Militarized Humanitarianism Meets Carceral Feminism” looks at anti-trafficking movements in a contemporary setting and ways in which evangelical Christian groups and liberal feminist organizations have merged since the 1990s. The author shows how evangelicals have swung to the left to take up the cause of anti-trafficking while liberal feminists have at the same time swung to the right and how both have committed to state and carceral solutions. The connections between anti-trafficking campaigns and criminalization are shown as well as the negative effects on sex workers and people of color.

“Evangelical Ecstasy Meets Feminist Fury” provides specific examples of anti-trafficking campaigns around large scale sporting events. The article shows how from World Cup to Superbowl to Olympics, sex trafficking is touted as a central problem but time after time the outcomes are the same: little to no evidence of trafficking, increased complaints of police brutality and arrest of sex workers, and moral panic based on a racist legacy of unsubstantiated claims. The article also emphasizes the important rhetorical move in anti-trafficking ideology conflating trafficking with prostitution.


** 3/3/18 The title of the reader was updated to make it clear that this is relevant to contexts beyond just sporting events. We are baffled how people continue to uncritically accept the discourse around trafficking and prostitution.

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Isidore may have died, but they are many.

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