Black women and girls are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for prostitution and prostitution-related crimes while being sex trafficked. Despite laws and policies meant to discourage criminalization, Black women and girls are profiled and subjected to both interpersonal and state violence due to their victimization. This paper uses one-on-one interviews with thirteen survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation across the United States and their encounters with the criminal legal system and incarceration. Grounded in Black feminist criminology, this research analyzes the experiences of survivors as victims and as criminals. Narratives demonstrate that courts and social services were unprepared, and often unwilling, to understand or acknowledge the intertwining trauma of racial and sexual abuse, inhibiting survivor’s healing and pursuits of justice. Learning from narrator’s insights, this article discuss what “justice” means for Black women survivors and how it may be achieved with and without institutional responses.
The United States government adopted its first comprehensive law against trafficking in persons, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (hereafter TVPA) in 2000. The TVPA defines “severe trafficking in persons” as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years or age” and “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjugation to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery” (U.S. State Department, 2020, p. 10). Since the TVPA’s implementation, the United States federal and state governments have adopted laws, developed task forces, and specialized training for police officers and social service providers, and created non-profits specifically designed for anti- trafficking enforcement and aiding potential victims of human trafficking. At the time of writing, all 50 states had adopted their own anti-trafficking laws, but not all are comprehensive for both labor and sex trafficking (Farrell, et al., 2014). Thirty-four states have safe harbor laws that prevent victims of child sex trafficking from prosecution for prostitution-based crimes, but only eighteen states have protections in place for child trafficking victims that committed crimes because of their exploitation (U.S. State Department, 2020).
Within the last years of the Obama administration, governmental officials and anti-trafficking advocates called attention to the fact that disenfranchised communities are particularly susceptible to trafficking. Extant research and governmental reports have demonstrated that Black women and girls are disproportionately targeted for sexual exploitation. In a report on suspected human trafficking incidences between 2008 and 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that of the total confirmed sex trafficking victims, 40 percent of them were Black, with Whites comprising 26 percent. This report also found that 62 percent of all confirmed sex traffickers were Black males (Banks & Kyckelhahn, 2011). Black girls are the second highest represented group incarcerated in the “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline” behind Indigenous and Native American girls (Saar et al., 2015). Black girls’ onsets of sex trafficking began at younger ages compared to their peers of other races (Grace & Sherman, 2011). Black women and girls are also disproportionately incarcerated for their victimization. According to the FBI, Black girls represented 53 percent of arrests for juvenile prostitution, a percentage that was higher than any other reported group (Rights4Girls, 2019). Los Angeles County in California identified that 92 percent of sex trafficking victims involved in the juvenile justice system were Black girls (Boxall, 2012).
These disparities for criminalizing Black women and girls are also known to traffickers and pimps. A 2014 Urban Institute report found that pimps, even when they preferred to have non-Black women working for them, exploited Black women because they believed the possible penalties would be less severe for Black women victims. One respondent articulated that the hyper-vigilance around human trafficking led to the creation of new charges in effort to combat “modern-day slavery” and that “if the girl is white, it’s called slavery” instead of “pimping and pandering” for Black women and girls (Dank et al., 2014, p. 159). The pimps included in this study elucidates the knowledge that Black women and girls are undervalued in society and therefore present less of an incriminating risk for them as exploiters.
Prosecutors are among the most powerful gatekeepers of the “victim” label in the criminal legal system (Farrell, et al., 2014). Prosecutors and judges have a significant amount of discretion and power; judges and prosecutors who do not have a critical understanding of new human trafficking statutes and the disparities of criminalization of victims could potentially allow this to ignorance in their perceptions to pursue cases under prostitution or pandering statutes—both of which assume consent for those engaging in sexual commerce, which may discredit and otherwise malign sex trafficking victims. This article investigates the lived experiences of Black women who are survivors of sex trafficking as children and adults and their navigation of the criminal legal system as victims and as offenders. This research addresses a gap in sex trafficking research by focusing on Black women and girls’ experiences with agents of the criminal legal system and prosecutors.
Based on semi-structured interviews with thirteen Black cisgender women survivors of sex trafficking (hereafter called “narrators”) and utilizing Black feminist criminology and concepts of intersectionality and misogynoir, this research interrogates how the narrators understood how their gender and race were perceived and thus treated by court-system workers from prosecutors to judges to juries. This article demonstrates how prosecutors weaponized racist and sexist stereotypes of Black women and girls as hypersexualized, deviant women incapable of being sexually trafficked and were sometimes indicted for trafficking other non-Black women. This case study interrogates how Black women survivors view “justice” and how it achieved for Black women and girl survivors. This research illustrates how “justice” is defined and critiqued by the survivors and the implications the narrator’s insights have for policy recommendations and community change.
An understanding of Black women’s and girls’ lived experiences requires a framework that centers their interlocking identities and their corresponding oppressions. Collins (1990) describes several tenets that underlie Black feminist thought: (1) race, gender, and class are inherently intertwined for Black women; (2) Black women’s thought production cannot be separated from their structural conditions; (3) Black women share a unique standpoint by being Black women, but no two Black women share the exact same experiences; (4) historical and material conditions shape Black women’s standpoint; and (5) Black women are knowledge producers and intellectuals because of their standpoint. Black feminist thought also includes the concept of the “matrix of domination,” which illustrates how intersections of oppressions are by structural design. This design is the structural organization of power and privileges that subjugate the disenfranchised based on race, gender, class, and sexuality. For Black feminist thought, the matrix of domination has four different domains that work to simultaneously impact Black women and causes their experiences to differ: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal to explain how “structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression” (Collins, 1990, p. 18).
Black feminist thought also conceives the idea of “controlling images” that have been used to dehumanize and marginalize Black women via stereotypical images. Controlling images are stereotypical portrayals of Black women that denigrate their intelligence, morality, and sexuality—to name a few of its functions—and provide “powerful ideological justifications” (Collins, 1990, p. 67) for oppressions of race, gender, and class. Collins elaborates that controlling images “are designed to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life” (2000, p. 96). These controlling images and their ideological justifications are cyclical in nature: the images are born from White supremacist and patriarchal thought and then used to validate these beliefs and ensuing actions and the individuals performing said actions. Stereotypical images and archetypes therefore legitimate the dehumanization of vulnerable groups by relaying the same ideological foundation that creates the material conditions and stereotypes for Black women and girls to be dominated and oppressed.
Black feminist criminology, intersectionality, and misogynoir all offer critical insights into the lived experiences of Black women who have been sex trafficked and often are incarcerated as children and adult victims of sex trafficking. Intersectionality is necessary for examining how Black women survivors’ identities influenced their victimization and criminalization by the criminal legal system. Crenshaw (1991) explains that “intersectionality represents a structural and dynamic arrangement; power marks these relationships among and between categories of experience that vary in their complexity” (p. 230). Intersectionality describes how experiences are shaped and understood simultaneously through our multiple identities, and this influences others’ perceptions and interpretations of events.
These perceptions begin with the “reading” the Black body. Friedman and Hitchens (2021) describe the dynamic of “embodied carcerality” that reads blackness as criminal and requiring control. Embodied carcerality “is the process that institutions use to both dispossess us and then convince everyone that our dispossession is the natural way of the world, rather than an injustice” (Friedman & Hitchens, 2021, p. 267). Black women and girls are imprisoned symbolically through the societal acceptance of their marginalization and this naturalization shuffles Black women and girls into physical prisons, thereby continuing the cycle of racialized and gendered oppression. Black women and girls’ criminalization and victimization requires interpersonal and institutional reproduction of their bodies as wrong and immoral for their intersecting oppressions of racism and sexism to persevere and continue an inter-generational cycle of racialized and gendered trauma.
These intersecting identities have been historically marred by racist and sexist construction of Black womanhood resulting in a specific belief of domination for Black women and girls, or misogynoir. Created by Bailey (2021), misogynoir is the “uniquely co-constitutive racialized and sexist violence that befalls Black women as a result of their simultaneous and interlocking oppression at the intersection of racial and gender marginalization” (p. 1). This misogynoir is rooted in viewing the Black female form as a location of danger, unnatural sexuality and as a threat; these images culminate in a distrust of Black women and girls’ ability to be violated or be innocent of deviant behavior. Misogynoir is used to highlight the physical body politic that traffickers, exploiters, and agents of the criminal legal system viewed Black women and girls who have been sex trafficked. It will work in conjunction with Black feminist criminology and intersectionality to dismantle the ways that Black women and girls are dehumanized and minimized in anti-trafficking enforcement and their vulnerability to sexual exploitation.
Black feminist criminology “places the Black woman and her intersecting identities at the center of any analysis” and specifically considers the issues of crime, victimization, and the criminal legal systems in the lives of Black women (Potter, 2008, p. 7). Potter (2008) categorizes Black feminist criminology into four themes to illustrate how it addresses crime and victimization in Black women’s lives: (1) oppressions delineated through social structures; (2) Black community and culture; (3) intimate and familial relations; and (4) Black women as individuals (p. 15). The first theme of Black feminist criminology discusses the myriad ways that structural oppressions manifest through institutional racism and sexism that create and reproduce harmful stereotypes of Black women and girls. This theme is used to discuss and understand how the multiplicative oppressions Black women endure impacted the lives of trafficked Black women as they encountered the criminal legal system.
The second theme of Black feminist criminology explores cultural distinctions of dynamics within the Black community. This theme analyzes how community relations affects Black women’s victimization and criminalization and will be applied in two ways in this research. First, like all gendered crimes, sex trafficking tends to occur intra-racially, with Black men and boys trafficking Black women and girls. Second, these intra-racial dynamics inform how narrators view “justice” for survivors of trafficking outside of the criminal legal system.
The third theme is used to explore trafficked Black women’s family and intimate connections before, during, and after exploitation, especially for narrators who were incarcerated. Sex trafficking victims have been introduced to sexual exploitation in three ways: (1) family members; (2) a romantic partner; and (3) through an acquaintance. Analyzing Black women as individuals who are located within their family, community, and social structures is the final theme of Black feminist criminology. As Potter (2008) explains, “her life as a Black woman is strongly connected to her location, status, and role in the social structure, the Black community, and interpersonal relationships” (p. 21). This fourth theme is used to center Black women’s individual experiences within the larger social and political structures through which they interpret their lives.
Despite the amount of literature on trafficking in persons, sex trafficking scholarship is still relatively new and still suffers from a lack of data and empirical studies (Goździak, 2015). Criminological research has determined several root causes of trafficking, as well as developed a sizeable literature on police procedure with investigating sex trafficking cases and interactions with alleged victims and perpetrators. Poverty and economic deprivation persist, a history of trauma and/or addiction, neglectful welfare systems, a history of early sexual abuse, and natural disasters are all structural and individual factors provide opportunity for traffickers to prey on potential trafficking victims (Hepburn & Simon, 2010; Reid, 2016). Concentrated structural disadvantage has also been correlated to sex trafficking (Mletzko et al., 2018). As is common with most gender-based victimization, trafficking victims usually know their traffickers who can be intimate partners, people in positions of trust, and family members (Reid et al., 2015). Despite this significant accumulation of research, there is still little intersectional analysis across all key areas, particularly on Black women and girls and sex trafficking.
According to Spohn (2014), prosecutors are sometimes hesitant to try cases under human trafficking statutes—which, in some states, are relatively new—and their “beliefs that judges and jurors had misperceptions about the nature of human trafficking that would make it difficult to convince them to convict someone for that crime” (p. 172). Another complication for prosecutors is victim cooperation during trials, wherein they are asked to divulge personal and traumatizing events that related to their exploitation. Similarly, in Farrell et al.’s study, prosecutors were more likely to convict a trafficker under a statute for a similar crime such as “pandering or promoting prostitution” that prosecutors and judges are more versed with (2014, p. 152). Researchers have demonstrated that police training and investigations are still lacking with proper victim identification and cooperation (Farrell et al., 2010), and often inadvertently cause further harm and victimization to those who are being sexually trafficked (Connell et al., 2015).
Victims of sex trafficking and violence are often hesitant to report for fear of being judged or blamed for their victimization, fear being not believed, or fear reprisals from their attacker (Corrigan, 2013; Farrell & Cronin, 2015; Frohmann, 1997). Trafficking victims often worry police would misunderstand or obscure their trafficking experience as consenting sex work or not understand the coercive dynamics of sexual exploitation and instead arrest and detain them, instead of recognizing them as victims and providing aid. Victim perception by criminal legal system agents is influenced by race, gender, and class biases that may also inform prosecutorial and conviction decisions (Farrell et al., 2010).
Victims have also been treated as perpetrators by investigators due to the inherent criminal nature of sex trafficking, misunderstandings of what constitutes “human trafficking,” and sexual exploitation may cause a low priority assignment for investigations (Renzetti et al., 2015). Further complicating this is the acknowledgement that victims do not always desire to pursue what the criminal legal system deems as “justice”—that is, arrest, trials, and hopeful conviction—and instead want alternatives to addressing their trauma and moving on from their exploitation. Farrell et al. (2019) refer to this “gap” as a hindrance for survivors of trafficking report their victimization and that law enforcement officials are not always equipped to recognize trafficking victims’ complex trauma and needs or properly identify human trafficking.
Criminological research on trafficking has been lax on interrogating legacies of chattel enslavement, structural oppressions, and contemporary human trafficking. Butler (2015) argues human trafficking has racial roots in the labor exploitation and sexual abuse of enslaved Black women and children. Delving into the criminal legal system’s response to sex trafficking, Butler (2015) asserts Jezebel permeates the anti-trafficking movement as seen with the “systemic failure of federal law enforcement” (p. 1501) and other actors to recognize Black women and girls as victims due to racialization and hypersexualization of their bodies. Davis (1981) summarizes that the sexual exploitation and rape of enslaved Black peoples and the societal encouragement and acceptance of it culminated in the “pattern of institutionalized sexual abuse of Black women became so powerful that it managed to survive the abolition of slavery” (p. 175).
Friedman and Hitchens (2021) describe a controlling image called “The Criminal” that “structures all” of the controlling images that constrain Black women and girls because “assumed criminality is the underlying yardstick justifying the original production of each image” through racialized and gendered ideas of natural deviance (p. 269, emphasis in original). The Criminal demands a systemic response of social control, and all Black women and girls have proximity to the Criminal. Friedman and Hitchens (2021) describe:
The Jezebel is measured as the closest to inherent danger and thus the most poignant example of the criminal incarnate. This occurs because her existence challenges the patriarchal rendition of family, which is grounded in the liberal economic logic that Black women and girls cannot claim ownership of their own bodies. Because the Criminal as a racialized and gendered trope uses innate danger or natural deviance as the dominant frame of reference, it emboldens the other controlling images with varying degrees of disciplinary power. Depending upon where they fall on the spectrum, they are met with the informal and formal controls we have described that produce a state of carceral existence, or embodied carcerality (p. 272).
The Criminal and Jezebel offer a framework to understanding criminal legal processing are a cultural practice. Jezebel and the Criminal persist through generations from their births during chattel enslavement to contemporary sex trafficking because they reify beliefs of sexuality and danger around the Black body, and who is considered a trafficking “criminal” and “victim.”
Because of the construction of their bodies and sexuality, Black women and girls are not believable as victims but are easily believed as traffickers or prostitutes. Anti-trafficking enforcement is geared towards prioritizing youth and women who are more likely to be considered victims of sex trafficking. Controlling images and the politics of misogynoir explain why Black individuals are rarely considered victims within trafficking situations. Social control through the criminal legal system directly relies on the subjugation of Black women and girls and figures like the Criminal and Jezebel are essential. The result is disproportionate outcomes in terms of criminalization, even for Black sex trafficked children. These dynamics of racialized and gendered forms of domination have gone understudied in human trafficking scholarship.
Research on Black women and broader manifestations of sexual violence offers insight into how Black women’s identities and intersectional experiences inform their victimization and responses to it. Quantitative studies and qualitative research agree that Black women and girls experience disproportionately high rates of violence in comparison to White women and girls (West & Johnson, 2013) and may also involve more physical violence as part of the sexual violation (Richie, 2012). Reid (2011) found that in her sample of Black women who survived childhood sexual assault, 12% of them were also prostituted as minors, an act that all federal and state laws define as child sexual exploitation or child sex trafficking. Black women are less likely to report their victimization and, almost predictably, less likely to receive support from community and health professionals when they do manage to disclose the violence they experienced (Long et al., 2007). Black women and girls are forced to contend with the racialized and sexualized legacy of the Jezebel, and this specter of lasciviousness continues to impact Black women to the extent that the stereotype continues to hinder reporting of sexual assault (Washington, 2001).
Tillman et al.’s (2010) review on the extant literature on Black women’s disclosure of sexual violence found that in addition to sexual stereotypes, a “cultural mandate to protect African American male perpetrators from actual and perceived unfair treatment in the criminal justice system are additional barriers to help seeing behaviors” (pp. 65-66) and cite economic barriers or low socioeconomic status and lack of health insurance and racist assumptions of healthcare providers as possible reasons for non-disclosure. In their study of Black youth and their experiences with intimate partner violence and entry into the sex trade, Kennedy et al. (2012) reported their participants experienced sex victimization “at the rate of 29.4%” compared with the national average of “13%” (p. 1331). Kennedy et al. (2012) assert that their social location of poverty, gender, and race rendered them increasingly vulnerable to the sex trade and sexual violence.
Literature on Black women and girls and sexual victimization reveal several common themes: Black women are still scripted as hypersexual at all ages and their bodies treated as publicly accessible; and Black women and girls are still given minimal protection from the criminal legal system which often means they are excluded from the narrow and stereotypical idea of who can be a “real” victim of sexual violence. Black girls are hypersexualized starting from a young age and stereotyped as acting “older” than is typical for White children of the same age or having attitudes that are coded as being “ghetto” or low- class (Collins, 1990; Jones, 2010). Epstein, Blake, and Gonzalez (2017) found that participants viewed Black girls as more adult than their White peers and that “participants perceived Black girls as needing less protection and nurturing than white girls, and that Black girls were perceived to know more about adult topics and are more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers” (p. 8).
Phillips (2015) found that Black girls are arrested and charged with prostitution-related offenses in high rates, despite state and federal laws dictating that minors cannot legally consent prostitution. Phillips (2015) found that “Black youth account for approximately 62 percent of minors arrested for prostitution offences” (p. 1645). This arrest pattern disproportionately harms Black girls who are “14 percent” of the population, but “33.2 percent” of detained girls, a population that has been steadily increasing (Saar et al., 2015, p. 7). This contrasts with the prerogative of law enforcement who tend to prioritize domestic minor sex trafficking (Baker, 2018; Clawson et al., 2006) but that is a decision that is at their discretion and informed by their trainings and biases. While it is important to note that quantitative methodologies are not entirely accurate due to the hidden and violent nature of sex trafficking, these statistics illustrate that there is a racial dynamic taking place within trafficking—an issue that has received minimal attention from trafficking scholars.
As there is little research on the African American community and sex trafficking, there is also little speculation why African-Americas have a high representation of sex trafficking victimization and offending. One assertion for the cause of sex trafficking is the claim that rap and hip-hop music normalizes “pimp culture” and, therefore, creates environments and ideology for traffickers. Nichols (2016) speculates that the normalization and glorification of “pimp culture” can encourage trafficking because the violence and degradation involved in coerced prostitution is minimized. The racially coded identifier of “pimp culture” has been used to describe the motivations for alleged traffickers as Black men, but some scholars argue that White victims are used to further criminalize non-White men and simplify what are sometimes multifaceted relationships (Farrell & Cronin, 2015; Jordan et al., 2013; Parker & Skremetti, 2012). Further, none of these studies had empirical evidence that supported a correlation between this genre of music and sex trafficking. Despite this, researchers and nongovernmental reports argue that there is a culture that glorifies pimping and glamorizes prostitution that “shapes” the United States (Kotrla, 2010, p. 183), with the implication that Black women and girls are both the chief consumers and supporters of this subculture.
These studies also do not discuss the commercialization of “pimp culture” from a deviant subculture of an illicit economy that arose out of race and gender employment discrimination into a pop culture phenomenon that dehumanizes women, especially Black women (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007). Other research on pimps illustrates their fluidity with securing venues for their workers to operate, and how the criminal legal system maneuvers to address prostitution and sex trafficking make pimps more creative with advertisement (Finn & Stalans, 2016). Nichols (2016) concedes that the word “pimp” and cultural adulation of “pimp culture” is sustained by White supremacy and a combination of poverty, lack of education, and viable employment opportunities, not an inherent deficiency in the Black community. This admission does not explicate on the lived experiences of Black women who have been trafficked or identify cultural factors that may be unique in creating vulnerabilities for sex trafficking for Black women and girls, and does it not abate the racial stigmatization this wording invokes.
This study was IRB approved in October 2019 and interviews were conducted from February 2020 through September 2020. Interviews were semi-structured interviews with thirteen Black women who are self-identified survivors of sex trafficking, though some of the women qualified their experiences as prostitution, whom I refer to as “narrators.” To qualify for this study, participants met three criteria: (1) identify as a Black woman, (2) be at least 18 years old at the time of the interview, and (3) no longer be involved in the sex trade. Potential narrators were recruited from trusted gatekeepers, primarily from social service agencies and nonprofit organizations throughout the United States, as well as distribution of flyers for potential recruitment for narrators and word-of-mouth from survivor-leaders (advocates who are survivors and work in anti-trafficking) who graciously agreed to connect me directly with contacts or distributed flyers advertising the study’s call for participants.
Because the terms “sex trafficking” and “human trafficking” are not often used by victims of exploitation, the advertisement called for Black women who had engaged in “prostitution,” a more recognized and understood term (Roe-Sepowitz & Hickle, 2017). Using broad terminology in the recruitment of potential narrators also provided a larger participant pool—the terms “sex trafficking” and “exploitation” are primarily used by law enforcement and non-profit professionals, and not terms the survivors of trafficking they themselves typically use to describe or label their experiences (Bosworth et al., 2011). In addition to the advertisement, potential narrators were recruited through snow-ball sampling. At the end of the interviews, narrators were asked if they knew women with similar experiences they could recommend to the study, which proved fruitful for making contacts.
To accommodate for the distance between states and for the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews were conducted over the Zoom platform. Narrators had the option to call into Zoom or login with the camera feature. All narrators were assigned a pseudonym. Informed Consent was given through DocuSign, which automatically generated copies for the narrators and me. Narrators were asked if they were comfortable being recorded, all answered affirmative.
Interviews were semi-structured with a short demographic survey and eighteen questions on the narrators’ childhoods, how they understand their experiences with sex trafficking, and their relationships with the criminal legal system. Interviews ranged from thirty minutes to two hours. Narrators were compensated $50.00 for their time. Payments were sent to narrator’s personal electronic applications, such as CashApp and Venmo, once the interview concluded.
Interviews were constructed following with Rubin and Rubin’s (2012) construct of the “responsive interviewing model” wherein it is assumed that “people interpret events and construct their own understanding of what happened, and that the researcher’s job is to listen, balance, and analyze these constructions to understand how people see their worlds” (p. 10). Because the response interview approach commands that the interviewer draw analysis from the narrator’s construction of their understanding of events this allows me to understand the construction of sex trafficking experiences that are not labeled as “trafficking,” thereby allowing me a greater understanding of how Black women understand and position themselves in relation to this form of victimization.
All narrators were cisgender Black women. The average age of narrators at the time of the interview was 34 years old, with the youngest being 20, and with the eldest narrator being 61. Eight of the narrators were working in a nonprofit organization—all of which served trafficking victims—with one narrator being a full-time student and the remaining four narrators being retired, on disability, or unemployed. Most narrators described their socioeconomic status between middle and lower class. The narrators were trafficked across and within multiple states, with the majority being trafficked in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, and Texas.
The average age for onset of trafficking was 15 years old and average age of exit was 25. The youngest onset age was six years old and oldest exit age was a narrator in their 60s. Most narrators were trafficked on prostitution strolls. One narrator was sold over the internet and another narrator was trafficked by her stepfather at truck stops in addition to street-level exploitation. One narrator, Cherie was trafficked for labor exploitation in private homes where she also experienced sexual violence. Eight of the narrators were trafficked by multiple men and five narrators had one trafficker for the duration of their exploitation. Nine of the narrators were trafficked after the implementation of the TVPA and several were minors when they were trafficked.
The 13 narrators identified 18 total traffickers among them. Most of the traffickers were acquaintances of the narrators, usually a friend of a parent. The second most frequent trafficker was a romantic partner or husband. The third common trafficker relationship was a parental figure, usually a father or stepfather. All narrators named trauma, specifically child sexual abuse and incest, as their primary vulnerability to be sex trafficked. More than half of the survivors were inducted into trafficking through sexual violence. Other traumas include physical abuse, drug addiction, and economic hardship as contributing to their vulnerability for exploitation.
All 13 participants had prior contact with police, with 10 narrators describing negative interactions with them as children. The majority also had family members who were system-involved. Many narrators were criminalized with charges related directly to their sexual exploitation or indirectly due to their proximity to their traffickers as detailed in Table 1. Out of the 13 narrators, only eight said their traffickers were also incarcerated.
Overall, narrators stated that the criminal legal system was not helpful for them as victims of sex trafficking and instead saw them as barriers for survivors to heal from their trauma.
Table 1. Convicted charges
Destruction of Police Property
Findings concluded that the criminal legal system discriminated against Black women and girl sex trafficking victims beginning with police who arrested them for crimes related to their exploitation. In court, Black women and girls were treated as offenders by prosecutors and had to contend with racist and sexist stereotypes of Black hypersexuality and criminality. Findings indicate that: (1) narrators experienced misogynoir in courtrooms and were denied the label of trafficking victim, which often led to incarceration; (2) narrators viewed their interactions with agents of the criminal legal system as a continued experience of exploitation and; (3) narrators viewed “justice” as something to be achieved for sex trafficking victims outside of the criminal legal system, but not necessarily within it.
Eleven of the 13 narrators appeared in a criminal-law court for trafficking-related offenses. By the time most of these eleven narrators appeared in front of a judge or were offered a plea deal, they had already been denied being classified as a trafficking victim and labeled an offender. Most narrators accepted plea deals and either served short sentences in a county jail or were given “time served.” The primary charges were for misdemeanors, but four narrators were convicted of felony charges. Narrator experiences revealed the dynamics between state agents and the intersections of race, gender, and misogynoir. Narrators reported feeling that their race and gender were their most defining identities that attorneys, judges, and juries saw, oftentimes masking or rendering the abuse and victimization of narrators invisible and irrelevant.
Dynah, 42 years old and a survivor of child and adult sex trafficking, was charged with second-degree murder. In 2006, she had an altercation with her second trafficker after he began beating her. Dynah killed him in self-defense and was sentenced to fifteen years:
The [police and prosecutor] knew that he had beat me up really bad that night and I was tired of it, and I shot him four times and I told them what was going on. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that he was the pimp, it didn’t matter that he had been beating me that night ... I felt so discouraged when they didn’t care that he was a trafficker. They didn’t care. They said instead of shooting him, I should have called the police. And I told them I’ve called the police my entire life. And nobody ever came for me, and how he had been beating me and I killed him because of it.
Dynah received Tennessee’s required minimum of fifteen years for second degree murder.
Tennessee reformed its approach to sex trafficking, especially to end the criminalization of exploited children, in 2011. By then, Dynah was an adult and had been sex trafficked as a child outside of her home state. Dynah’s defense attorney argued that her history of being sex trafficked and the fact that she killed her trafficker in self-defense should not result in being treated as a murder. Dynah states that she admitted to killing her trafficker and disclosed that she had a history of out crying to law enforcement and then being arrested for prostitution, even as a child. Dynah reports that the court did not consider her a victim of trafficking or consider other mitigating circumstances in her conviction or sentencing.
Four months after she was released from prison, Dynah met a man who kidnapped and trafficked her in Texas. She ran away from this trafficker, called the police, and was taken to a shelter. Dynah’s final exit came with the uncertainty of employment and stable housing, but she was able to receive services at a non-profit, an organization that she praised throughout her interview. When recalling her incarceration, Dynah revealed that the economic and emotional instability she experienced after leaving prison created an additional susceptibility for trafficking that her final trafficker took advantage of. Dynah was already vulnerable to trafficking due to her history of drug addiction and child sexual abuse and imprisonment exacerbated and added to her trauma.
The rest of the narrators’ charges incurred were either directly tied to the women’s exploitation or indirectly because they were associated with someone, usually the traffickers, who committed a crime. At the time of her interview, 22 years old adult trafficking survivor Nia, was moving through the trial process for a felony residential burglary charge due to the actions of her second trafficker:
I went to jail for some time. I’d say almost two weeks. I was in there, but not [because] I was a prostitute. It was due to something that my current pimp, my new pimp—and he was doing things he shouldn’t be doing, and I was the only female in the car, so they dipped off [left] and I was the only one left and I got pinned with all the charges.
Neither Nia nor the investigators knew the location of the trafficker by the time she first began the court process.
Narrators often expressed strong and adversarial opinions about the prosecutors of their cases, more so than when discussing police officers or their traffickers, because they funneled them into jail or prison. Narrators expressed that they felt the prosecutors were the primary reason they were viewed and believed as criminals instead of as victims and relied on racist and sexist stereotypes to prove their case. Narrators’ ages were not typically helpful in deterring being labeled an offender, and narrators who were children at the time of their exploitation were treated like an adult offender.
Imani’s description of her time in a California county’s court and her impression of the assigned prosecutor was the most vivid of the narrators. Imani’s voice rose, and she physically displayed more obvious signs of discomfort such as fidgeting and looking away from the camera. The 34 years old adult trafficking survivor recalls:
Imani: I, and two other ladies that were with us, got pulled over for a broken right headlight. We were on the track. [The trafficker] was literally about to send us down and we got pulled over. One of the girls admitted to being a prostitute and we all basically got pulled in. I ended up getting charged with pandering because I was technically considered the bottom bitch. I was the only one that had his name tattooed on me. So again, not looked at like a trafficking survivor, looked at like aiding and abetting essentially. My trafficker got seventeen years ‘cause he had other priors, gang-affiliated. There was guns and stuff in the car, and I ended up getting five years with half [off], so I ended up doing two years.
CG: What happened to the other two in the car? Were they charged with anything?
Imani: Of course, the Caucasian one was let go and the other female was African American. They gave [the African American woman] a prostitution charge, but she got released on O.R. [own recognizance].
CG: Did you have an attorney or was it an automatic plea?
Imani: I was never even offered a deal, so I took it to trial ‘cause I didn’t feel like I should go down for something that I was forced to do. They gave me a public trial defender. The trial was fucking horrible. Of course, I didn’t even [think] that I was actually gonna go to prison, especially not having an extensive criminal record other than all the trafficking charges. I was actually shocked when the verdict came back guilty on all charges.
CG: Did you have a jury or was it a bench [trial with just the judge]?
Imani: A jury of not my peers.
Imani’s jury did not include Black men or women and their total deliberation lasted three hours. She was advised to separate her case from the trafficker but was not offered a plea in exchange for revealing any incriminating information on him. To Imani’s knowledge, nothing happened with the other two women who accompanied her and the trafficker, but the focus on Imani was due to her forced placement of the “bottom bitch” role that pimps give to a selected woman keep the other prostituted women “in line.”
Imani was tried for three counts of indecent exposure and five counts of prostitution, and the prosecutor focused on her physical body to discourage the jury from seeing her as a victim and instead as a willing participate in prostitution:
I remember crying as the DA was making his spiel, because he was trying to debate the fact that I wasn’t a victim, and he actually had a picture of me in this super skanky schoolgirl outfit that my trafficker would use when we posted ads and was like, “Oh see look at her. Like she’s smiling, she’s not a victim.” Even my lawyer was like, “who’s going to get called [for] dates with black eyes like or looking sad and depressed?” The crazy part about it is he literally beat my ass that morning and then I had to go take the pictures. It was just crazy how non-trauma informed and non-empathetic the court system is especially with African American survivors of human trafficking. I think there’s obviously definitely been a lot more light shed on it and people coming forward and talking about it. So … It’s not all equal. Like, why do I get a prison term, but “Rebecca” gets a program?
Imani was trafficked after the implementation of the TVPA and after the state of California began an overhaul of its anti-trafficking laws to a more victim centered approach. Imani’s defense team was not able to convince the prosecutor, judge, or jury that she was a trafficking victim. Orange County, where she was trafficked, is particularly notorious for racial disparity, a fact Imani reiterated with a statement of, “I was the wrong skin color in the wrong county.” The prosecutor in Imani’s case was pushing for a 12-year prison sentence, but she was sentenced to five years with the expectation she would serve half because it was a nonviolent crime.
The label of “bottom bitch” was also used to argue complicity to sex traffic other women, because the dynamic between this position and other women is one of surveillance and control as a proxy for the trafficker/pimp(s). Amina, 32 years old and survivor of adult sex trafficking with multiple traffickers, faced a similar obstacle in the criminal investigation. Because of her “bottom bitch” role, the prosecution treated Amina as if she was just as culpable in exploitation as the trafficker without consideration of the dynamics of coercion and trauma Amina had with the trafficker:
I didn’t know that I was being basically held accountable for [exploitation] as well. It wasn’t just like some prostitution charge; it was like pimping and prostitution and pandering and kidnapping and false imprisonment and there’s all like, all this stuff. I was just like, “but I didn’t kidnap nobody.” I didn’t understand, but the way that the laws are written, you tell somebody “no, you can’t go nowhere,” that’s kidnapping. I had no idea that you could be charged with kidnapping by telling somebody they couldn’t leave. That’s what all came out afterward. But I had no idea that it would spiral out of control and become five years of my life gone.
Jamilah, 51 years old and self-identified former prostitute, spent the most time in prison in a multi-security level (minimum to maximum) women’s correctional facility in Colorado for prostitution and endangerment charges due to her HIV+ status. She admitted she felt like her race and gender was a factor in the sentencing: “I think the prosecutor was like, ‘she has to be off the streets. She has to be off the streets. We can’t have her on the streets.’” Jamilah elaborated on her perception that her race and gender and her HIV+ status were influential in determinations made by the prosecutor and judge:
I almost feel like it was an example needed to be made. I can’t remember the actual words on the paperwork, but it was something to like, I was a “danger” or a “menace to society” and I thought “they didn’t know me for the person before the drugs and before the prostitution” and to be pointed out as a person that is a menace or a harm to the whole community, it didn’t make me feel good at all. I felt bad. I felt I have let people down, not only my family, but the community. They didn’t deserve the things that I was doing in their alleys behind their homes. It’s a harsh reality, but it was reality. They were like, “we can’t have her on the streets. We have to get rid of her. She can’t be on the streets like this.” It wasn’t, “Oh, let’s, let’s get you into rehab or let’s, let’s make sure you’re getting your HIV [treated].” No, it was, “you need to do prison time.”
Jamilah’s experience is like her peers who were denied victim status felt: demoralization and feeling defeated due to criminalization without consideration of the violence that was being done to them by traffickers, buyers, and agents of the state. Jamilah reported still feeling small and disgusting when she recalled that courtroom experience.
Maya, 33 years old survivor of child and adult sex trafficking, was charged with several prostitution and nuisance offenses and ultimately served fourteen days in jail:
The jail there was like the movie Oz; like 22-hour lockdown, locked doors, pop-lock doors. It was just so horrific for me. It was the longest I did. I did fourteen days because I have priors, prostitution cases. They had called a prostitution case and I had a prior prostitution cases and intent to prostitute. My case was just like a misdemeanor. When I went to the camp [women’s facility], I met other girls that was in The Life.
Meeting other girls with similar experiences with abuse and sex trafficking did provide some clarity and kinship that Maya found useful for understanding her own sex trafficking status. Maya was trafficked as a minor after the TVPA was passed, but the safeguards that are meant to discourage child criminalization were either not in place or just not used for her.
Imani was able to receive diversion-based services while incarcerated, but overall did not find incarceration or the criminal legal system helpful. Imani described imprisonment and her subsequent probation as continued trauma, because she was not able to leave the state of California and return to her home on the East Coast because of her probationary status. Imani testifies:
I was under the assumption that I would be able to go back home, but parole denied my request of going back to the East Coast. I had to basically build my life from scratch. I had a lot of time to think about my game plan before I got out, but I didn’t fathom the complexities. Classic felony disenfranchisement, especially being an African American woman. On top of that, low income. I struggled with finding employment. I was able to find a job at a warehouse and I hated it and I was just like, the only way I’m going to elevate is if I just go back to school and become self-made. My first year of college [I] actually started my nonprofit organization, because I wanted to create a protective barrier around me that I could always fall back on and be my own boss and not always have to rely on trying to find a job for minimum wage.
Facilitation of exit aside, Imani asserts that her accomplishments are in spite of her trauma and struggle with the criminal legal system and the changes she worked through in her life were due to her own determination. Imani revealed that her experience with the criminal legal system and imprisonment is similar being trafficked:
Being trafficked and then being incarcerated, which feels like being trafficked again and then getting out and being a felon on parole, it’s just been like a never-ending cycle for me as far as feeling [like I’m] being trafficked …. I went from being held captive to captivity again. It was the same. The same system, different faces.
For other narrators, being incarcerated provided access to resources that were fruitful for breaking their cycles of exploitation and receiving addiction and trauma-based resources. Amina describes her imprisonment as another source of trauma exacerbated by her exploitation. However, Amina states that being incarcerated provided time to focus on herself that she did not have while in custody of her trafficker:
I had a little mini breakdown to the point where they had to check on me every 30 minutes ‘cause they didn’t know if I was suicidal or not .... I was locked up in our county jail for about two years fighting this case. I pled to an assault charge. Everything else dropped. For the remainder three years there, I continued to do more growth. But just finding my way back to who Amina was, in a sense and what I like to do and what made me me.
Jail and prison proved to be further traumatizing for the imprisoned narrators, but some also stated that it offered a chance to be reflective and consider how to begin their healing process as they exited their exploitation. Amina’s time in jail caused her to return to her empathic self before she was trafficked:
That’s where I kind of figured out that my calling is to help people, to counsel them, to give them some comfort, to let them know that they’re going to be okay, that they can make it, to give people some options. I came home five years ago, and the rest is sort of history. I’ve been doing the work with direct services for about four years. I use everything that I’ve been through with my job ... from the exploitation, all of that is used in my job today.
Aside from her defense attorney, Amina does not view the criminal legal system as overall helpful while she was being trafficked but welcomed the chance to analyze herself and integrate her self-discoveries into her continuing healing process.
Dana, 53 years old and a child and adult sex trafficking survivor, was sentenced to three years in prison for property theft after she stole a camera at the behest of her trafficker. Dana had been kidnapped as a teenager by a man from her neighborhood and had forged documents with a false name and birth date. Dana’s mother had been searching for her since the trafficker kidnapped her but was unsuccessful. Dana’s incarceration did not provide an opportunity to escape or chance to receive counseling but did help her trafficker in keeping her hidden. After being sentenced to three years for the theft, Dana was entered into the prison’s database as an adult, not a juvenile, due to the forged documents Dana’s trafficker created for her. This inhibited her mother’s efforts to search for her because, “they were looking for a juvenile and he had me going to jail as an adult.” Dana did not report her imprisonment as helpful but does state she was able to get into contact with her mother again when going through the bail process. Dana’s reunion with her mother was the final step that empowered her to separate from her trafficker and cut off subsequent communication attempts.
Anti-trafficking enforcement’s aim is to incarcerate individuals who contribute to trafficking, especially traffickers and their co-conspirators. Most narrators were viewed as abetting their traffickers and were prosecuted as criminals. Courtrooms are microcosms of society and for the narrators who were processed and tried in them, the prosecutors, judges, and sometimes juries, replicated social stratification along gender and race lines. Misogynoir locates distrust of Black women in their physical bodies, delegating them to untrustworthy creatures to be disbelieved, abused, and belittled. Some of the narrators personally experienced this with prosecutors who capitalized on stereotyped ideals of sexuality to evince guilt and deviance. Even for narrators who were minors at the time of victimization, even after the passage of the TVPA, their criminalization was further violence that was perpetrated by the state because incarceration is a common “saving tactic” for gendered crimes but is still physically and emotionally damaging. Thus, the disparities between the subsets of narrators are skewed heavily against trafficking survivors.
Narrators focused on two community-level and societal changes needed to ensure for justice for Black women and girls. First, narrators stressed the need for racial reckoning and teaching the history of chattel enslavement for both the anti-trafficking movement and its enforcement, especially social services, and the criminal legal system. Second, narrators centered the importance of Black women in the Black community and for Black women and girls to be loved, valued, and believed in terms of preventing and combating sex trafficking.
Several narrators connected the history of chattel enslavement of Africans with their own devaluation by their communities and society, particularly the criminal legal system and anti-trafficking enforcement. Narrators described the necessity for an in-depth education on the brutality of enslavement and its continuing impacts on the African American community. Narrators specifically focused on the sexualization of Black women and girls and their construction as being mentally and physically “strong” as reason why they were uniquely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and why they were ignored by agents of the criminal legal system. Narrators asserted that it is the sexual exploitation of White women and girls that anti-trafficking enforcement is concerned with, not the women and girls like the narrators.
Maya states that trafficking is endemic to this country’s founding, but this history is forgotten, especially by agents of the criminal legal system and the anti-trafficking movement. Maya elaborates:
My theory is trafficking started in the beginning of this country when they stole our ancestors and brought them here. The women were sex victims, the men and women were labor trafficking victims. It’s in our DNA, sadly, and the slave masters were the first traffickers. They took them from a whole ’nother country, bought them over here, use them for their labor and for their sex. That’s what this country needs to acknowledge and that’s where they need to start. And I often say that in many spaces. I had got an award before I left [southern California]; it was all White people [in the audience] …. [In my acceptance speech, I said] I want to dedicate this award to [the enslaved ancestors] because they were the first trafficking victims, and thankfully there was other Black women in the crowd—they started clapping first. So, they all [the entire audience] had to clap. I don’t care, I speak my truth because as a survivor, I have that right. I’m going to tell you guys the truth about how they should start. And they didn’t give a damn about no trafficking until White women started being trafficked.
Maya shared that she was explicitly speaking to a room of anti-trafficking activists, police officers, and lawyers in her speech. Though she received applause for her dedication, Maya relayed that she was aware she caused discomfort from the White members of the audience.
Anti-trafficking’s enforcement is organized around protecting those who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, specifically relying on laws and policing to combat trafficking. Amina reveals the seemingly natural exclusion of Black women and girls from this enforcement:
Even the laws that were written on the books—they try to tell us the lie that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that passed in 2000 was the first federally recognized human trafficking law on the books. Nope, [it was] the White Slave Trafficking Act [the Mann Act]! That was the first one; and it’s still used today. So, when I look at those things and just the roots, the historical context of how our country was formed, it was formed on the basis of slavery and human trafficking at its finest. I can’t deny that that what happened in way back in 1500 or 1600 or whatever the year was. It’s still relevant today and it still impacts us today. And those same ideas are still happening today. The fact of the matter is a Black victim is not going to be seen in the same way as a White victim I see them do a hard bend for the Hispanic girl if she looks White enough. But for Hispanic girl that looks a little bit too Black and for the Black girl, that doesn’t look light enough, there’s all these roadblocks like, “we can’t do that.” And it’s like, “but you just did it for them,” what’s the problem? I still see a lot of racial disparities when it comes to this, regardless of whether they’re not locking up minors for trafficking, but they’re still locking up plenty of girls that they know are CSEC [commercial sexual exploitation of children], but they’re not being offered services. The little White girls are being offered services, but as far as I can see, it’s not the same for Black and Brown girls.
Amina continues to explain that this history is carried by Black women stating, “I definitely think just being a Black woman in general, carries a lot. It carries the history of exploitation of trafficking, of slavery. You carry that with you, it’s in our DNA.” Amina centers the history of chattel enslavement as an influence for vulnerability to trafficking, community silence around exploitation of Black women and girls and of the racial disparities of incarceration of traffickers and trafficking survivors.
Like Maya, Amina is aware that the critical race frameworks she uses to analyze history work for survivors of trafficking causes discomfort for audiences and fellow anti-trafficking advocates. Amina recounts experiencing hostility in a training webinar about human trafficking when she raised issues of racism and the Mann Act:
[The webinar presenters] told me that my question was not appropriate for the context of that training. I was like, “this is about trafficking, how is it not appropriate? I’m sorry that your White guilt is hurting right now.” I bring these things up a lot because I need people to understand, y’all don’t get to come in and swoop in and make this whole trafficking thing about y’all. I’m sorry, you’re not going to do it. Not on my watch.
Amina grew animated in the interview here, shaking her head with vivid facial expressions conveying exhaustion and irritation. Amina stresses the need for an acknowledgement of chattel enslavement in anti-trafficking and for the racial disparities to be centered in this advocacy.
Amina’s critical responses to others in the anti-trafficking community is not limited to White actors, but she critiques other Black advocates who downplay or try to hide the significance of race and sex trafficking. When speaking of another Black woman, Amina expresses anger at the lack of a critical race analysis and admittance of the prevalence of exploitation and incarceration of the Black community:
I’ll go on presentations at times with a lady from our [Black] community to do presentations about human trafficking. She always says, and it burns me to my soul, but she always says that she doesn’t want anybody to think that trafficking is a Black issue because it’s not everybody doing it [it is not just Black people who traffic others or are trafficked]. I always cringe because I try to tell her that everybody might be able to be participate in this, and anybody can be a victim [but] this is a Black issue because the majority of folks being locked up for this are Black.
Amina is not dismissing the reality that non-Black women and girls are trafficked and incarcerated but is saying the disparity is glaring enough to warrant more advocacy and attention onto the unique issues facing Black women and girls.
Narrators majorly echoed Amina’s sentiments and felt that anti-trafficking overall adopts a “race-neutral” stance by framing human trafficking in all forms as a gendered issue. While true because the majority of identified sex trafficking victims globally are women and girls, this ignores the other identities that influence vulnerability, treatment, and afterlives of trafficking. This, narrators asserted, was why their victimization across all ages and regions of the United States were primarily ignored and prosecuted as offenders. Meaning, because the nuances of gender, violence, and race in the history of chattel enslavement is either ignored or just not considered in anti-trafficking, the disproportionate impacts of further harm to Black women and girls is either marginalized or treated as divisive, as Amina and multiple other narrators were.
Cherie, 24 years old and child sex and labor trafficking survivor, continues to critique the criminal legal system’s anti-trafficking responses, especially the reliance on the criminal statutes. Cherie became physically agitated, and her voice raised when she dismantled the idea of neutrality of law as harmful for victims:
This should be humanity, not law. Let [survivors] educate these judges. Let them educate these lawmakers, let the experts be at the table. Sorry, but it makes me angry because the system only makes choices based on law, not humanity. And it makes me so angry. “Oh, that’s against the law.” It’s not about the law. It’s about humanity. I don’t understand how it’s “just” about law … It just baffles me.
Cherie ended her statement by saying she feels “angry” when thinking about the organizational structure and guiding principles of the criminal legal system’s arm of anti-trafficking enforcement. That is, people who have considerable societal power (and are overwhelmingly White men) dictate laws on the assumption of neutrality and implement them even though they have disparate impacts on vulnerable populations.
Narrators named two root causes of their exploitation: (1) the fetishization of Black women’s bodies; and (2) abuse by Black men. For both root causes, narrators described feeling pieced apart by being minimized down to their body parts and sexuality and the community pressure to stay silent about being victimized by Black men. Just as narrators saw the importance of the legacy of chattel enslavement for a much-needed racial reckoning, so too did narrators connect the sexual abuse and dehumanization of enslaved Black women and girls to the fetishization of their bodies. As 26 years old child sex trafficking survivor Zora asserted, “my shape—like big butt, big titty, a thick girl—was like, that shit [her body] is gonna sell.” Zora was fourteen years old when she was first sex trafficked and, like all the narrators of this study, stated that the men who paid them were primarily White or Latino men.
Tiara, a 25 years old child and adult survivor, similarly details the attention given to Black women’s and girls’ bodies due to racist and sexist stereotyping:
When you see prostitution stuff, like documentaries and movies and things like that, you see Black women who are normally in that role, they’re in that spotlight. So, they are viewed as [prostitutes]. And then you have the music videos and have half naked Black women just exploiting themselves with the outfits that they wear. And you have strip clubs where the thing [demand] is thicker Black women in these little outfits and stuff. I fell into this trap, too. I fell into this statistic. I never wanted that for myself because we’re more viewed as like hoes and strippers and Welfare Queens and shit like that.
Tiara—who works in the music industry—names the highly sexual music culture of some venues of hip-hop and rap but does not consider all music that is culturally Black to be exploitative of women dancers and performers. Rather, she was speaking about a specific commercialization of Black women’s bodies (or body parts) that is both racist and sexist, thereby dehumanizing Black women at an intersection of two oppressions. This commercialization, in Tiara’s argument, is lucrative and an additional vulnerability that is unique to Black women and girls.
At the core of the narrators’ experiences and their perceptions was the awareness that the same systems that oppress Black women and girls because of their race, gender, class, and other identities also disenfranchised Black men and boys. Narrators revealed frustrations with the community rallying around injustices committed against Black men and boys while the violence towards Black women and girls—and Black nonbinary or gender-queer individuals—is sidelined or silenced all together. This was particularly upsetting for the narrators because all 18 traffickers or exploiters who were Black men. Some of the narrators struggled with wanting to hold their traffickers and exploiters accountable, but worried that naming their traffickers would add to stereotyping of Black men as hypersexual criminals and their likelihood of incarceration. Narrators also worried that discussing sex trafficking would isolate them in their communities and neighborhoods. Zora explains:
This is going to sound so controversial, but I feel like we need to hold Black men accountable. And not just Black men, but men of Color accountable … I just feel like anytime that I’ve ever been exploited, or my friends have been exploited it’s by them, by our own people.
Tiara reiterated this sentiment of asserting Black women and girl survivors deserve justice but are afraid of the cultural stigma that speaking out can create, “I think that a lot of women get held under this standard of [no] snitching or loyalty” and “[victims] not wanting to be perceived as this person who’s just can’t be trusted because they came forward to speak about [being trafficked].”
Maya shared some barriers Black women and girls have with accessing justice through the criminal legal system after exploitation:
I think they can ensure justice by listening to them, and don’t fucking let police officers be the one to fucking interview them. Call in people like me, call in non-profit people to talk to them because, number one, [victims] don’t trust you. They don’t have a relationship with you. They’re not going to open up to you when you’re a police officer. Most police look like White men, so they’re not going to open up to you. Of course, they’re not going to tell you that they’re being trafficked. I think they’re doing better, but they need to do more. It’s a lot of White women and White men [leading] this human trafficking movement. That’s why they’re missing the mark tremendously. And the main focus in this whole movement is the trafficker, and who’s the trafficker? Most of time Black men. So, it’s the same thing of War on Drugs … [It’s] the same type of movement. So, it’s like you guys [criminal legal system] are missing the mark because you guys are focused on the wrong things.
Maya is not saying that traffickers who are Black men should be overlooked or treated leniently because the history of “criminal justice” campaigns disproportionately targeting Black men. Maya is explaining that one of the many hesitancies that Black women and girl survivors have is contributing to this further criminalization of Black men when discussing their exploitation and the ramifications it can have for the Black community and their marginalization in the U.S. society.
The prerogative of the criminal legal system’s anti-trafficking enforcement is to combat human trafficking, especially by “rescuing” victims, and ensure “justice” by incarcerated traffickers and other enablers of exploitation. For several of the narrators, they were collateral damage of the anti-trafficking enforcement with some of them being labeled as complicit in their exploitation. Narrators did not view the criminal legal system as an institution that was built for them and incapable of providing justice. Incarceration was a difficult process and transition for most narrators, but sometimes a necessary catalyst for exiting trafficking or prostitution. The narrators perceived their race and gender as the reason why their treatment throughout the legal system was neglectful at best or abusive at worst.
Narrators overwhelmingly expressed distrust with the criminal legal system, but some wanted to pursue justice through the court process, but most ended up on trial themselves alongside their trafficker. Survivors also lamented that buyers, especially men who pay to sexually violate children, are not given priority in anti-trafficking enforcement. Instead, narrators were critical of the focus on traffickers because that placed them on a slippery path of criminalization due to the hypersexual stereotypes of Black women and girls. “Justice” then becomes a muddled and ambiguous term, with many narrators remaining doubtful of a real possibility of justice as constructed by the criminal legal system.
Instead, narrators suggest that “justice” for trafficked Black women and girls does not require the criminal legal system but can instead happen through community and societal challenges to misogynoir. First, Black women and girls need to be loved, protected, and valued in society and within their communities. Narrators wished for the same community rallying and support that occurs for Black men and boys when they have been victims of injustice from agents of the criminal legal system. Narrators reiterated that the history of criminalizing and harming Black men and boys that created community protectionism and felt that naming them as their traffickers would be seen divisive and they will most likely keep running into the veil of silence. Second, narrators animatedly gave prominence to the need to listen and believe Black women and girls when they do outcry about their exploitation and trauma.
This research offers several critical implications for qualitative and quantitative criminology as well as policy recommendations. First, this article proves the importance of narratives and centering historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups. While qualitative studies with survivors of sex trafficking are limited because they are a vulnerable population, existing research, to my knowledge, has been mixed-race and multicultural. This is not a disadvantage but centering groups and focusing on their specific intersecting identities can yield more insights into how said group understands “sex trafficking” and their evaluation of the primary institution that governs penal decisions around this crime—the criminal legal system.
These narratives provided a cultural insight into how misogynoir functions in society, how the narrators internalized and often rebelled against stereotypes, and how their visions for “justice.” Most important, if qualitative research is meant to provide a deeper analysis of criminal phenomena, then this research underscores the importance of using critical and intersectional theories. By analyzing the narratives using a Black feminist criminology framework, this article shows how meanings of “justice” reflect a shared cultural knowledge of history that is unique to Black women and forged counter-narratives on why they were criminalized and re-traumatized by the courts and incarceration. Likewise, these narratives show how narrators used their lived experience and expertise to train agents of the same institutions that imprisoned them. This could be especially useful for researchers who study police, lawyers, and other criminal legal employees and their effectiveness at combating human trafficking through arrests, trials, and laws.
Quantitative criminology has been the primary source of data for sex trafficking scholarship. Quantitative studies offer necessary insight into the scope and dept of sex trafficking and criminalization of victims, but they do not fully encapsulate lived experiences of survivors nor how they understand their exploitation and experience with the criminal legal system as victims who are maligned as offenders. The most significant implication this article can have for quantitative criminology is the need to distinguish individuals in a sample and how they interpret their sociopolitical worlds, especially the institutions that define and shape their identities as victims and/or criminals. These interpretations can be used to assess and evaluate anti-trafficking enforcement and generate recommendations that could potentially prevent compounding trauma that was experienced by the narrators of this study. In sum, this case study can reveal the social reality of the populations quantitative criminological research investigate and the complicated experiences, like misogynoiristic beliefs, narrators have that cannot be fully observed or measured by quantitative standards.
Lastly, taking heed directly from the narrators themselves, this study offers several recommendations for policy of practice. First, because several of the narrators link the construction of Black women and girls’ bodies and sexuality back to chattel enslavement of Africans and the racist history of anti-trafficking enforcement, practitioners should have an in-depth education on the history of chattel enslavement and its contemporary ramifications for the Black community. The narrators stress that a racial reckoning is needed to understand not just unconscious bias or anti-racist training, but of the fundamental ways that chattel enslavement was a founding institution that constructed Black bodies as criminal and hypersexual and how these beliefs continue to influence anti-trafficking and deny Black women and girls’ access to the label of “victim.” This education and acknowledgement of the everlasting effects of chattel enslavement could deconstruction the racist and sexist perceptions of seeing Black women and girls as prostitutes and co-conspirators to their traffickers, especially when they have been coerced into the “bottom bitch” role that was used against Imani and Amina. Narrators said the most important first step towards combating the sexual exploitation of Black women and girls is to dismantle the stereotypes of strong and hypersexualized women and instead see their pain, believe them, and provide a safe environment for Black women and girls to share their narratives and work as a community to address their victimization.
Second, narrators urged the importance of knowing how to talk to Black women and girl victims, especially for law enforcement. Maya’s argument to not have police officers interview victims if they are White men because they resemble buyers may seem extreme, but as an advocate and training for an anti-trafficking non-profit, her observation and experience means she is well-positioned to make this critique. It should be recommended that agents who interview suspected sex trafficking victims, especially if they are children, resemble them or not reflect the population that was exploiting them. Instead, Maya, and other narrators discuss having someone involved in community-based work talk with the victims, establish a rapport, and build trust before having interview with police officers which can be re-traumatizing. This study illuminates the need to re-assess and evaluate how sex trafficking investigations are initiated and how the need for victim cooperation can be harmful to victims and even risks them being mis-identified as criminals instead. It is advised that anti-trafficking enforcement make a concerted effort to work alongside with community groups whose workforce demographic resembles the community they serve. This includes taking required trainings on the unique needs of disenfranchised populations, hiring them to work directly with survivors, and for community-led organizations to have more opportunities to lead anti-trafficking efforts
Lastly, practitioners need to prioritize making Black women and girls feel visible, valued, and protected both in their community and in their interactions with survivors of trafficking. Narrators stated they feel invisible when they are abused by Black men and are pushed to the margins when racial justice campaigns are mobilized to call attention to systemic racism without attention to how system racism harms Black women and girls, or their racist and sexist experience. Practitioners can address this by including how systemic racism afflicts Black women and girls as well as their gendered and racialized encounters with the criminal legal system. It is also essential that practitioners who are Black and serve Black communities also have conversations on intra-racial harming of Black women and girls and advocate for dismantling the silence around sex trafficking in the Black community that the narrators state inhibits the prevention and combating of sex trafficking Black women and girls. Practitioners in general need to work to ensure that the Black women and girls they are working with feel protected and safe, while Black practitioners need to ensure that they are also combating misogynoir in their communities and protect the Black women and girls in their communities.
This study had several limitations. The first limitation is that all narrators are cisgender women. Given the disproportionate number of Black transwomen and youth who are sex trafficked and incarcerated for their exploitation, this omission is the most significant limitation of this research. As such, the insights gleaned from these narratives, as powerful and necessary as they stand, are solely from a cisgender women’s perceptions. While recent research has begun focusing on the experiences of LGTBQ+ survivors, including people of Color, researchers and advocates require more knowledge production to prevent causing further harm and trauma. Future research on trafficking should also focus on the unique experiences of transgender Black women, particularly when making recommendations to inform policy.
The second limitation was the barriers presented for interview recruitment, predominately due to the pandemic. Because of limitations for health and safety and the difficulties and strain COVID-19 presented, this research is a small case study. A larger study would have provided more data on the unique experiences of Black women, especially if it was not limited to cisgender women. The Zoom platform also meant that potential narrators who wanted to participate could not due if they did not have the resources for an electronic or phone interview. The benefit of using Zoom was that it allowed for interviews across the United States and provided geographic diversity instead of being limited to one state. Limitations considered, this research has provided knowledge a plentiful on Black women’s and girls’ experiences with sex trafficking and navigation of the criminal legal system.
Narrators illustrate how narrow ideals of what a trafficking victim “looks like” and institutional racism and sexism caused their abuse to be misconstrued as consenting to prostitution and exploitation of others who did meet this ideal. Narrators centered solutions for prevention and combating of sex trafficking of Black women and girls at a starting point in society, specifically within the Black community .This is the foundation upon which “justice” can be given for Black women and girl survivors of sex trafficking, not courts or police, but community-level change that will also elevate their status in society overall and see Black women and girls as complete human beings.
Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press
Bailey, M. (2021). Misogynoir transformed: Black women’s digital resistance. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Baker, C. (2018). Racialized rescue narratives in public discourses on youth prostitution and sex trade in the United States. Politics and Gender, 1-28.
Banks, D., & Kyckelhahn, T. (2011). Characteristics of suspected human trafficking incidents series NCJ233732 (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Bosworth, M., Hoyle, C., and Dempsey, D. (2011). Researching trafficked women: On institutional resistance and the limits to feminist reflexivity. Qualitative Inquiry 17(9), 769-779.
Boxall, B. (2012, May 31). Campaign to halt child sex trafficking launched in L.A. county. Los Angeles Times. https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/05/sex-trafficking.html.
Butler, C.N. (2015). The racial roots of human trafficking. UCLA Law Review 62, 1464-1514.
Clawson, H., Dutch, N., and Cummings, M. (2006). Law enforcement response to human trafficking and the implications for victims: current practices and lessons learned. Washington DC: ICF International.
Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and empowerment. New York, NY: Routledge.
Connell, N., Jennings, W., Barbieri, N., and Reingle, J. (2015). Arrest as a way out: Understanding the needs of trafficking victims identified by law enforcement. Journal of Crime and Justice 38(3), 351-360.
Corrigan, R. (2013). Up against a wall: Rape reform and the failure of success. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 43(6), 1241-1299.
Dank, M., Yahner, J., Yu, L., Mogulescu, K., and White, K. (2017). Policing prostitution: An analysis of individuals arrested and prosecuted for commercial sex in New York City. Urban Institute.
Davis, A. (1981). Women, race, and class. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Epstein, R., Blake, J., and Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black girl’s childhood. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Law Center, Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Farrell, A., Dank, M., Vries, I., Kafafian, M., Hughes, A., and Lockwood, S. (2019). Failing victims? Challenges of the police response to human trafficking. Criminology and Public Policy 18, 649-673.
Farrell, A., Devitt, J., and Fahy, S. (2010). Where are all the victims? Understanding the determinants of official identification of human trafficking incidents. Criminology and Public Policy 9(2), 201-233.
Farrell, A., Owens, C., and McDevitt, J. (2014). New laws but few cases: Understanding the challenges to the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases. Crime, Law, and Social Change 61, 139-168.
Farrell, A. and Cronin, S. (2015). Policing prostitution in an era of human trafficking enforcement. Crime, Law, and Social Change 64, 211-228.
Finn, M.A., and Stalans, L.J. (2016). How targeted enforcement shapes marketing decisions of pimps: Evidence of displacement and innovation. Victims and Offenders 11, 578-599.
Friedman, B. and Hitchens, B. (2021). Theorizing embodied carcerality: A Black feminist sociology of punishment. In Z. Luna and W. Pirtle (Eds.), Black feminist sociology: Perspectives and praxis (pp. 276-277). New York, NY: Routledge.
Frohmann, L. (1997). Convictability and discordant locales: reproducing race, class, and gender ideologies in prosecutorial decision making. Law & Society 31(3), 531-555.
Goździak, E. M. (2015). Data matters: issues and challenges for research on trafficking. In M. Dragiewicz (Ed.), Global human trafficking: Critical issues and contexts (pp. 23-28). New York, NY: Routledge.
Grace, L. G., and Sherman, F. T. (2011). The system response to the commercial sexual exploitation of girls. In F.T. Sherman and F. H. Jacobs (Eds.), Juvenile Justice: Advancing Research Policy, and Practice (pp. 331-352). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons.
Hepburn, S. and Simon, R. (2010). Hidden in plain sight: human trafficking in the United States. Gender Issues 27, 1-26.
Jones, N. (2010). Between good and ghetto: African American girls and inner-city violence. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Jordan, J., Patel, B., and Rapp, L. (2013). Domestic minor sex trafficking: A social work perspective on misidentification, victims, buyers, traffickers, treatment and reform of current practice. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 23, 356-369.
Kennedy, A., D. Bybee, S. Kulkarni, and G. Archer. (2012). Sexual victimization and family violence among urban African American adolescent women: do violence cluster profiles predict partner violence victimization and sex trade exposure? Violence Against Women 18(11), 1319-1338.
Kotrla, K. (2010). Domestic minor sex trafficking in the United States. Social Work 55(2), 181-187.
Long, L., Ullman, S., Starzynski, L., Long, S., and Mason, G. (2007). Age and educational differences in African American women’s sexual assault experiences. Feminist Criminology 2, 117-136.
Mletzko, D., Summers, L., and Arnino, A. (2018). Spatial patterns of urban sex trafficking. Journal of Criminal Justice 58, 87-96.
Nichols, A. J. (2016). Sex trafficking in the United States: Theory, research, policy, and practice. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Parker, S. and Skremetti, J. (2012). Pimps down: A prosecutorial perspective on domestic sex trafficker. University of Memphis Law Review 43, 1013-1045.
Phillips, J. (2015). Black girls and the (im)possibilities of a victim trope: The intersectional failures of legal and advocacy interventions in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors in the United States. UCLA Law Review 62(1642), 1662-1675.
Potter, H. (2008). Battle cries: Black women and intimate partner abuse. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Potter, H. (2015). Intersectionality and criminology: Disrupting and revolutionizing studies of crime. New York, NY: Routledge.
Reid, J. (2011). An exploratory model of girl’s vulnerability to commercial sexual exploitation in prostitution. Child Maltreatment 16, 146-157.
Reid, J. (2016). Entrapment and enmeshment schemes used by sex traffickers. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 28(6), 491-511.
Reid, J., Huard, J., and Haskell, R. (2015). Family-facilitated juvenile sex trafficking. Journal of Crime and Justice 38(3), 361-376.
Renzetti, C., Bush, A., Castellanos, M., and Hunt, G. (2015). Does training make a difference? An evaluation of a specialized human trafficking training module for law enforcement officers. Journal of Crime and Justice 38(3), 334-350.
Richie, B. (2015). Arrested justice: Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Rights4Girls. (2017). The juvenile justice system and domestic child sex trafficking. Rights4girlsnonprofit. https://rights4girls.org/juvenile-justice/.
Roe-Sepowitz, D. and Hickle, K. (2016). Curiosity and a pimp: Exploring sex trafficking victimization experiences of entering sex trade industry work among participants in a prostitution diversion program. Women and Criminal Justice 47(2), 1-17.
Rubin, H. and Rubin, I. (2012). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data, Third edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Saar, M., Epstein, R., Rosenthal, L., and Vafa, Y. (2015). The sexual abuse to prison pipeline: The girl’s story. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Law, Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Sharpley-Whiting, T. D. (2007). Pimp’s up, ho’s down: Hip-hop’s hold on young Black women. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Spohn, C. (2014). The non-prosecution of human trafficking cases: An illustration of the challenges of implementing reforms. Crime, Law, and Social Change 61, 169-178.
Tillman, S., T. Bryant-Davis, K. Smith, and A. Marks. (2010). Shattering silence: Exploring barrier to disclosure for African American sexual assault survivors. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 11(2), 59-70.
U.S. Department of State. (2020). Trafficking in persons report 2020. Washington, D.C. https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Washington, P. (2001). Disclosure patterns of Black female sexual assault survivors. Violence Against Women 7, 1254-1283.
West, C. and K. Johnson. (2013). Sexual violence in the lives of African American women. National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women. Retrieved from: https://vawnet.org/material/sexual-violence-lives-african-american-women-risk-response-and-resilience.
Cassandra Gonzalez holds a PhD in Ethnic Studies with a focus on criminal justice and criminology. Dr. Gonzalez’s research focuses on the experiences of Black women and girls sex trafficking survivors and their onsets of exploitation and their experiences with the criminal legal system as victims and offenders. Dr. Gonzalez is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University.
I would like to thank the narrators who graciously donated their time and shared their personal narratives with her for this research. I express my appreciation for the reviewers for their valuable critiques and insights on this article. I would also like to thank my doctoral advisor, Dr. Hillary Potter, for her guidance and insights on my dissertation from which this article was born. I also want to thank my colleagues who have encouraged me to continue with this research and facilitated the writings groups in which much of this article was written.