Militarized humanitarianism meets carceral feminism: the politics of sex, rights, and freedom in contemporary antitrafficking campaigns

Signs (Chic). 2010;36(1):45-72. doi: 10.1086/652918.


Over the past decade, abolitionist feminist and evangelical Christian activists have directed increasing attention toward the “traffic in women” as a dangerous manifestation of global gender inequalities. Despite renowned disagreements around the politics of sex and gender, these groups have come together to advocate for harsher penalties against traffickers, prostitutes’ customers, and nations deemed to be taking insufficient steps to stem the flow of trafficked women. In this essay, I argue that what has served to unite this coalition of "strange bedfellows" is not simply an underlying commitment to conservative ideals of sexuality, as previous commentators have offered, but an equally significant commitment to carceral paradigms of justice and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state. I draw upon my ongoing ethnographic research with feminist and evangelical antitrafficking movement leaders to argue that the alliance that has been so efficacious in framing contemporary antitrafficking politics is the product of two historically unique and intersecting trends: a rightward shift on the part of many mainstream feminists and other secular liberals away from a redistributive model of justice and toward a politics of incarceration, coincident with a leftward sweep on the part of many younger evangelicals toward a globally oriented social justice theology. In the final section of this essay, I consider the resilience of these trends given a newly installed and more progressive Obama administration, positing that they are likely to continue even as the terrain of militarized humanitarian action shifts in accordance with new sets of geopolitical interests.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Altruism
  • Feminism* / history
  • Gender Identity
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Human Rights / economics
  • Human Rights / education
  • Human Rights / history
  • Human Rights / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Human Rights / psychology
  • Human Rights Abuses / economics
  • Human Rights Abuses / ethnology
  • Human Rights Abuses / history
  • Human Rights Abuses / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Human Rights Abuses / psychology
  • Political Systems / history
  • Religion* / history
  • Sex Work* / ethnology
  • Sex Work* / history
  • Sex Work* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Sex Work* / psychology
  • Social Justice* / economics
  • Social Justice* / education
  • Social Justice* / history
  • Social Justice* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Social Justice* / psychology
  • Social Problems / economics
  • Social Problems / ethnology
  • Social Problems / history
  • Social Problems / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Social Problems / psychology
  • United States / ethnology
  • Women's Health* / ethnology
  • Women's Health* / history
  • Women's Rights* / economics
  • Women's Rights* / education
  • Women's Rights* / history
  • Women's Rights* / legislation & jurisprudence