Book Review: Alicia Peters’ Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender and Culture in the Law

Alicia Peters’ comprehensive study, Responding to Human Trafficking, makes a strong argument for a victim-centered approach to law-making and law enforcement surrounding this issue and is an excellent example of the potential utility of ethnography in pushing social change and pursuing justice for victims of crime. A central problem that Peters highlights, and which resonates throughout the book, is the way that law enforcement agencies, criminal justice practitioners, NGOs and service providers, and even survivors of trafficking themselves, interpret and respond to law from divergent perspectives, stances, political positions and experiences. These interpretations and responses are also deeply tied to the contexts and arenas of culture, which, in the case of law enforcement oftentimes consists of the constrictive and routinized ruts of bureaucratic practice. In fact it is in the footsteps of Lipsky’s (1980) classic work on “street level bureaucrats” that Peters ventures as an ethnographer into what she calls (rightly) the U.S. anti-trafficking apparatus — depicted graphically (and quite accurately) in the book’s first figure as a tangle of agencies and organizations, including DOJ, ICE, HHS, and the FBI, among many others. Ethnography no doubt helps to cut through this tangle, and Peters provides us with a well-organized and nicely written exposition of how these stakeholders operate, interact and – not surprisingly – clash in the process of responding to the problem of human trafficking.

Peters’ ambitious multi-sited street-level investigation is based on over two years of fieldwork during which she engaged with a diverse range of stakeholder informants, toggling back and forth from Washington D.C. to New York City. Her study is divided into three main parts, reflecting her analytical aims. Part I (Chapter 1) addresses the birth of U.S. anti-trafficking law. Part II (Chapters 2 through 4) provides a look at law through the lenses of various stakeholders. Part III (Chapters 5 and 6) assesses how law works in practice. A key word connecting all three parts is “conflict,” not just over definitions, as represented in the landmark, but bifurcated, anti-trafficking law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and how this law is interpreted. Conflict is also apparent in the agendas, goals, and cultural politics of service providers and police officers and prosecutors who have significant influence over what the law means. Through informant voices, the author navigates the gray layers of exploitation, interpreting exploitation, and responding to interpretations of exploitation. As written, the TVPA splits sex trafficking (through force, fraud, or coercion), from forced labor, a distinction that is not simply confusing and internally dichotomizing, but is also partly the result of — and that ultimately amplifies — fundamental cultural clashes with existing responses to other forms of sex trafficking. This distinction also opens the door to biased normative moral systems executed in legal practice. Peters shows how the involvement of inexperienced law enforcement, and other criminal justice officials and human service providers, exacerbates these politics. Regardless of intentions, the re-victimization of survivors and the over-looking of other, perhaps less culturally visible victims, may result.

It is “culture,” the other key word guiding Peters’ study, that frames her journey through what is obviously a complicated landscape and affirms the efficacy of ethnographic inquiry to challenge assumptions from many angles. For example, we learn that women often serve as traffickers and that the emblematic success story of the anti-trafficking apparatus is in fact a case involving sex work. More importantly, we also learn that regardless of a survivor’s particular circumstances of trafficking, whether as a prostitute, a domestic laborer, or a farm hand, most share the same basic depravities of isolation, deception, fear, and threats. But her ethnography also takes care to show that people working to fight trafficking, i.e. to take “law in action,” are frustrated and still learning or negotiating their professional roles, their political agendas, and their measures of success. Effectively responding to crime also entails understanding the intricacies of these various cultures.

In terms of scope, Peters is upfront about not attempting a detailed history of sexual slavery or labor exploitation. Nor does she claim to describe or assess the wider landscape of human trafficking throughout the U.S. or internationally — traffickers, for example, are critically important subjects of research (Marcus et al. 2014). At the same time, the study could perhaps do more to engage a bit deeper with the gathering anthropological scholarship on trafficking as well as with the field of legal anthropology more broadly. While this rapidly growing literature is mentioned, it is relegated to a long footnote. Likewise, since the study’s subtitle suggests that it will be an investigation into how people see “sex and gender in the law,” one might expect more use of the references to quite relevant scholarship on legal consciousness, or a larger discussion of how the question compares with other laws “in action.” I would have also liked to have seen more information on the politics of limited state resources (for example, human trafficking presently trumps funding for domestic violence interventions) or on the subtle and not so subtle ways that victims can get re-victimized by advocates themselves (see Cojocaru 2015). That said, as an ethnographic synthesis of key issues such as legal definitions, the range and politics of service providers, the relationships between laws, policies, and ideologies, and the cultural undercurrents of responses to the problem, this is a valuable book and will be of interest to political and legal anthropologists, as well as graduate and undergraduate students. The ultimate aim of Peters’ research is to use ethnography to help make better policy, and the true strength of the book is the integration of extremely varied viewpoints, which, if these were better understood from the separate and self-interested corners of professional practice, would certainly help move law forward. In this sense, the book should be primary reading for every police officer, service provider, and lawmaker.

Edward Snajdr, John Jay College, CUNY


Reviewed in this Essay:

Peters, Alicia W. 2015. Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender and Culture in the Law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 244 pp.


References Cited

Cojocaru, Claudia. Sex Trafficking, Captivity, and Narrative: Constructing Victimhood with the Goal of Salvation. Dialectical Anthropology, 39.2 (2015): 183.

Lipsky, Michael. Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980.

Marcus, Anthony, et al. Conflict and Agency among Sex Workers and Pimps: A Closer Look at Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 653.1 (2014): 225-246.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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