Brokered Subjects: Sex, Trafficking & The Politics Of Freedom

Author: Elizabeth Bernstein
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 304p.
Reviewer: Jennifer Suchland | February 2021

With the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of Soviet and east European state socialism, a new “wave” of sex trafficking captured the attention of governments and humanitarians alike. This instantiation of global concern for “sex slavery” coincided with the extension and deepening of neoliberalism and continues to be entangled in systems of governmentality that rule both punishment and access to rights. With the passage in 2000 of the UN Optional Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and similar legal agreements at national and regional levels, anti-trafficking has become a gravitational force in contemporary governance and social advocacy. For much of the two decades that have passed since these initial laws, Elizabeth Bernstein has provided incisive and complex analyses of the “anti-trafficking industrial complex.” Indeed, starting with her book Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex (2007), Bernstein’s research has helped to forge the growing field of critical trafficking studies. Her work, including with the recent monograph Brokered Subjects: Sex, Trafficking & the Politics of Freedom, goes beyond identifying the pitfalls and perils of anti-trafficking strategies (though that too is important work) to provide a deeper diagnosis of the social relations that are forged by and through moral and political projects of redress. In those social relations, be they between corporations and anti-trafficking initiatives or human rights advocates and potential trafficking survivors, Bernstein captures the central role of sex and gender in and through our neoliberal times.

In Brokered Subjects, Bernstein assembles and expands upon key arguments she has made regarding carceral feminism, militarized humanitarianism, sexual economies and neoliberalism. In this regard, the book is a compilation of her most important scholarly interventions in the massive anti-trafficking apparatus which now includes state and federal agencies, the non-profit sector, and corporate entities/initiatives. A systematic and structural thinker, Bernstein weaves these separate mechanisms in an ethnography of human trafficking discourse. As she explains, an ethnography of discourse is mobile and multi-sited and reveals the contestation and fragmentation internal to that discourse rather than a uniform formation (25). In “shadowing” human trafficking discourse, Bernstein has collected an impressive corpus of empirical research spanning from 2005-2012 and ranging from U.S. locations to Southeast Asia. The empirical and theoretical questions raised by that extensive research are answered across six chapters. For those already familiar with Bernstein’s work, the book provides added complexity to existing arguments regarding carceral feminism, militarized humanitarianism, and neoliberalism by connecting the dots among them. One of the keen insights she provides is that it is precisely the amalgam of conservative and progressive investments in anti-trafficking that sustain its existence as a discursive subject and domain of affective attachment. In this regard, Bernstein pushes even those in critical trafficking studies to consider how attachments to critique (and thus reform) remain embedded in the fraught trafficking apparatus.

In chapters two and three Bernstein provides a backdrop to the discursive explosion of “trafficking” looking specifically at feminist, faith-based and secular investments in punitive responses to sex and gender justice. How is it, Bernstein asks, that sex work has (once again) become a socio-political obsession? Moving beyond the observation that sex trafficking is just the contemporary instantiation of an all too familiar “sex panic,” she illuminates the complex affective and financial investments to anti-trafficking produced by humanitarian sentiment and social justice advocacy. Those investments are forged by an underlying commitment to carceral solutions to naming and responding to harm and consequently entwine seemingly disparate approaches to women’s rights and gender justice. Her concept of militarized humanitarianism is an important theoretical contribution as it provides a nuanced reading of “justice oriented” religious entities (churches and Christian NGOs) and their affective attachment to human trafficking. While there are clear signs of a progressive turn in the self-identities of many of these religious groups, including the move away from public “hot topics” like abortion and homosexuality to “common denominator” issues like sex trafficking, Bernstein finds that sex still plays an important symbolic role in contemporary modes of evangelical social engagement. Indeed, sex trafficking centers sex and sexual politics as it also obfuscates critical reflection and, in many ways, facilitates a willful ignorance about actual sex workers.

The deep investment in carceral systems is well documented by activists and scholars who are critical of the anti-trafficking apparatus, especially as the widening concern for human trafficking has facilitated what Mimi Kim calls a “carceral creep” into schools, hospitals and other institutions designed to be social services of the welfare state. In chapters four and five, Bernstein directs our attention to the complex and insidious ways anti-trafficking is embedded in neoliberal capitalism. As she explains, the operations of power are not only in domains of the punitive and prohibitive but exist in domains of (nonsexual) forms of economic exchange that are staples of neoliberalism (147). In this way, Bernstein connects the dots between the punitive and the profitable effects of trafficking discourse. In chapter four, authored with Elena Shih, they recount the appalling story of their participation in a commercially packaged “reality tour” of trafficking in Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai). Their ethnographic re-telling illuminates how sex trafficking is a commodified story shaped by western created melodramas that are only proven by such reality tours. The “proof” of sex trafficking is produced through the affective attachments to the western narrative and the “faith” that the emotional attachment produced erases the blatant signs of discursive dissonance that exist all around. Again, the willful ignorance (and perhaps duplicity on the part of the NGOs) is astounding and so important to understanding the marketability of such tours which track along, rather than operate in defiance of, the tourism industry promoted by the state, development banks, and transnational corporations. In chapter five the concept of “redemptive capitalism” is developed and deepens the social analysis of the marketable lives of “anti-trafficking.” Bernstein’s ethnography focuses on projects funded by Google and ManPower, two “corporate citizens” whose investments in anti-trafficking (from surveillance mapping technologies to brokered labor contracts) promotes the idea that capitalism has created a market for “freedom” and casts capitalism as synonymous with it.

Beyond the remarkable conceptual contributions (carceral feminism, militarized humanitarianism, and redemptive capitalism) presented in Brokered Subjects, Bernstein’s book contains an abundance of smart and syncretic analyses that are especially useful for scholars already critical of the anti-trafficking apparatus. Bernstein’s powerful ethnography demands that critical approaches to anti-trafficking reflect on how even progressive (or indeed, critical) perspectives reproduce the discourse of trafficking. I have always thought it an important yet unrecognized reality that the self-sustaining and enduring presence of anti-trafficking is linked to the fact that human trafficking discourse produces trafficking victims. In an unending cycle, victims are produced and in turn reproduce the discourse. Yet, one significant source for how the anti-trafficking landscape has shifted over the past two decades is the increased role of (and activist leadership of) self-identified trafficking survivors. While not in the scope of this book, it is important to dwell on the significance and meaning of survivor narratives for they give evidence to not just the power of human trafficking discourse. Such narratives certainly reflect (and reproduce) some of the troubling affective attachments outlined in Brokered Subjects, but they also signal the complex ways people are (re)categorizing and naming violence in the deeply violent landscapes of neoliberal carceral states. If, as Bernstein intonates, “freedom” within (racial) global neoliberal capitalism is illusory, then “slavery” too is a fungible category in both problematic and potentially transformative ways. And for subjects for whom dominant narratives of harm and redress systematically exclude their experiences, including incarcerated survivors, “trafficking” opens up space for, even as it also forecloses certain forms of, structural change. Along other lines, there are unexplored dynamics between the human trafficking discourse in the United States that primarily focuses on what are called “domestic victims” and the ongoing role of projecting trafficking as a foreign (or foreignized) phenomenon. For example, the traffic of evangelicals and other western humanitarians to Thailand to witness “sex trafficking” reveals not only the global footprint of white (savior) sentimentality. It also reveals how the foreign and domestic are coterminous rather than opposed discursive formations.

In summary, I highly recommend this fascinating, readable and compelling book by one of the leading theorists of sexual politics today. Brokered Subjects is thoroughly researched, thoughtfully argued, and should be read by anyone who fashions themselves invested in or critical of anti-trafficking. This is an invaluable study and one that will be guiding critical inquiry for many years to come. Indeed, what we are left with after reading Bernstein’s book is the profound question of what remains when “human trafficking” is no longer the framework through which freedom is brokered in late capitalism.

Jennifer Suchland, Associate Professor, Ohio State University

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