My research analyzes the cultural and political forces that contribute to the emergence and evolution of rights categories. I am interested in how human rights categories, such as violence against women and human trafficking, are shaped by relations of power both geopolitically and within colonial, gendered, sexual and racial formations. I have always worked at the nexus of feminist and area studies and am interested in how experiences and ideas about gender, sexuality, and race are historically, culturally, and geopolitically rooted and travel.
In my first book, Economies of Violence: Transnational Feminism, Postsocialism, and the Politics of Sex Trafficking (2015), I analyze the re-emergence of global anti-trafficking discourse at the end of the Cold War. I argue that the emergence of the racialized “white” figure of the post-Soviet (sex) trafficking victim was central to how human trafficking was framed as a criminal aberration. This real yet mythologized figure of “Natasha” prioritized an image of trafficking as primarily a sex crime unrelated to economic and political forces. While framing trafficking, in particular what U.S. law would call “sex trafficking,” as a form of violence against women helped elevate the issue to a new global scale, the anti-trafficking apparatus that has taken predominance is largely stripped of a human rights agenda in which economic, sexual, and political precarity are central concerns. Moreover, the carceral agendas of most anti-trafficking efforts has contributed to the hyper-criminalization of undocumented, migratory, and informal labor, of anyone engaged in sexual labor, and criminalizes survivors.
My current book project examines the moniker “modern day slavery” as an affectively and ethnically charged metaphor for human trafficking. I aim to understand what opportunities and challenges result from casting slavery as a new experience specifically in the United States where the living legacies of chattel slavery and anti-Blackness are both ongoing and politically contested. The project pivots on a multi-layered analysis of “domestication” wherein attention is diverted from “global trafficking” to the so-called domestic in U.S. policy, advocacy, and cultural arenas. The effects of domestication are manifold, including: the opening-up of new forms of recognition and redress; the continued dominance of white liberal forms of empathy that function as a decoy for racial settler capitalism; and the displacement of longstanding social justice projects by anti-trafficking practices that revolve around the idea of a “modern slave.” I analyze these dynamics in a range of forms and contexts, including memoirs, museums, and activist projects.