RESEARCH

Trained in political and feminist theory, I have always been interested in how human rights categories emerge and are contested within relations of geopolitical power and colonial, gendered, sexual, and racial formations. In particular, I focus on sexual and labor exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking. My research and teaching are at the nexus of critical human rights, feminist studies, and Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

Link to select publications here.

Economies of Violence: Transnational Feminism, Postsocialism, and the Politics of Sex Trafficking (2015) is an analysis of the resurgence of global anti-trafficking discourse at the end of the Cold War. With the demise of state socialist economies and the onslaught of economic and political instabilities, human trafficking became an urgent human rights focal point. While not a new category of concern, human trafficking was cast as an aberration of global capitalism and a pathology of an emerging postsocialist neoliberal order. Key to this framing was the racialized (white) figure of “Natasha,” a post-Soviet victim of trafficking in the sex trade. This real yet mythologized figure created an image of trafficking as primarily a sex crime unrelated to economic and political precarity. 

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While framing trafficking in the sex trade as a form of violence against women brought attention to exploitation, it also expanded state and non-profit investments in a careral approach to human rights. For post-Soviet labor migrants, the Natasha discourse diverted attention away from the economic, sexual, and political precarity contributing to exploitation. The structural conditions of exploitation receded from view while individual victims and perpetrators became the focus. Moreover, labor trafficking attributed to the failures of state socialism mobilized carceral agendas in Europe and globally. Most anti-trafficking efforts continue to hyper-criminalize undocumented, migratory, and informal labor and anyone engaged in the sex trade as well as trafficking survivors. There remains a human rights deficit at the heart of anti-trafficking.

 

As I completed Economies of Violence, a major transformation in U.S. anti-trafficking discourse and tactics was afoot. The “domestic" turn in U.S. anti-trafficking directed attention towards a new category called domestic trafficking. Strangely, this category does not refer to where trafficking occurs (i.e., within U.S. territories) but to particular victims. Within the domestication of trafficking, the modern day slavery moniker is a resonant force.

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In my second book, tentatively entitled Accounting for Analogy: Recursive Stories of Modern Day Slavery, I contemplate what is taken and made possible when racial slavery is instrumentalized through analogy in the context of anti-trafficking. Each chapter presents a distinct confrontation between racial slavery as a historical and ongoing force and anti-trafficking discourses and practices to grapple with the debts, decoys, and entanglements produced by analogizing slavery in the context of U.S. settler colonialism. The trans-Atlantic slave trade,  chattel slavery, and settler colonialism structure contemporary relations of power and thus cannot be contained as historical references. Yet, the MDS analogy returns to racial slavery to “cash in” on affective and ethical registers of liberal anti-slavery. Engaging a recursive method of analysis, I examine the dilemmas that the MDS analogy creates as a critical practice of accounting.

Photo Credit: “Modern Day Slavery Is Real” is a collaboration between pen pals Mutope Duguma and Annie Morgan Banks. Artist Annie created the image, an original linocut, and author Mutope wrote the message it illustrates.Click image for full details.

 

This image and collaboration is an example of mobilizing MDS as an abolitionist legacy and strategy. It is not an analogy.