Celebrating Feminist Formations

Tomorrow afternoon in Tucson, AZ, the new editorial team of the JHU Press journal Feminist Formations will hold a celebration to mark the move of the editorial staff to the University of Arizona. Part of the celebration will include a talk from Roxana Galusca, a University of Chicago researcher who contributed an article to the newest issue of the journal.  We spoke with her about the milestone for the journal and her research.

How excited are you to play an important role in the Feminist Formations celebration?

It is a privilege to be part of this celebration. Feminist Formations has had a formative role in my training as a scholar of gender and sexuality and it is a central publication in the field of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. As someone who truly believes in the unlimited potential of this field of studies, I find this celebration refreshing and I am proud to be part of it.

You are speaking about your article “Slave Hunters, Brothel Busters, and Feminist Interventions: Investigative Journalists as Anti-Sex-Trafficking Humanitarians,” which is included in the newest issue of the journal. Tell us a little about how this topic drew your interest.

I became interested in this topic several years ago when I was preparing to write my dissertation prospectus. Since then, this project has changed form and shape. But, at first, what drew my attention was the impressive array of cultural productions (Hollywood films, documentaries, music, photography, journalistic exposés) that recounted stories of women’s drugging, abduction, and then entrapment into prostitution. These stories of sexual exploitation seemed strikingly similar to those circulated at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States (the so-called white slave trade): a poor and naïve girl is cheated and trapped into prostitution by mean and evil men. Today, the language is not much different with many journalists and activists referring to the phenomenon as “sexual slavery” and to the migrant women as “cargo,” while the same melodramatic stories about innocent and pure girls trapped and locked in brothels make the headlines. The characters in such stories have changed since the white slave trade crisis, but a comparative study of these two different moments in time can be extremely revealing. Therefore, my first approach to the issue was purely historical in nature as I was trying to piece together and understand the material conditions that triggered this sudden interest in women’s migration, including this rhetorical flourish, at very different times in history.

As I began looking more closely at current discourses of women’s trafficking in the United States and elsewhere, my interest shifted more and more towards the politics of humanitarian compassion and sentimentalism underpinning anti-trafficking interventions. I started asking questions pertaining to the excessively melodramatic and emotional nature of these stories. What kinds of discourses, practices, and forms of gender politics are occluded by this melodramatic rhetoric? Why is the public focus on particular migratory subjects only (the young, presumably innocent victims) and not on the many undocumented migrants, women working in maquilas and sweatshops, who represent the majority of cheap labor sustaining the expansion of neoliberal capitalism in the twenty first century? Why is it that one form of labor and migration (women’s migration and work in the sex industry) is considered illegal and exploitative while other forms of exploitation (the use of women as cheap labor and disposable bodies in sweatshops, maquilas, and factories) do not elicit the outrage that they should? I am not suggesting that we should rank exploitations, but that there is a host of questions that activists and scholars need to ask about the selective practices that gave rise to what is called today “the global fight against the traffic in women.”

You focus on the role investigative journalists play in uncovering and intervening the trafficking of females around the world. What did you learn in your research which surprised you about this phenomenon?

To be frank, I was surprised about how little the public discourse around race, gender, and nationality has changed, despite decades of progress made by postcolonial and race scholars and activists. Of course, I am not arguing that nothing has changed. But, we have had decades of postcolonial and race scholarship and activism, and, yet, in the twenty-first century, many white western journalists go on heroic ventures in countries in the Global South and Eastern Europe, with the stated goal of rescuing women from corrupt governments and from what these journalists consider women’s bad decisions.

In my article, I show how journalists such as Nicholas Kristof and Aaron Cohen, for example, have the political and financial backing to undertake undercover brothel raids in red light districts in countries such as Cambodia and Thailand. In these countries, they go into red light districts–a hidden camera on them–pose as johns, and capture live the raiding of the brothel and the arrest of sex workers. Their live footage is then broadcast on CNN and elsewhere, while their brothel-busting ventures are called humanitarian missions in the service of victims of sex trafficking. These journalists are dubbed heroes and celebrated for their courage and feminism. Meanwhile, not once do audiences hear about the “saved” women, who they are, what happens to them after the brothel busting, and whether they are happy with the outcome. Sometimes, reports surface that some of these women escape the shelters and go back to work in brothels, but little explanation is offered as to their reasons for going back.

In short, I was puzzled to discover that these rescue sprees prompted little to no outcry in media and the academic community. But what surprised me most, I think, is the fact that Kristof and Cohen, and many of their fans, were entirely oblivious of histories of colonialism, neocolonialism, and military interventions that mark the United States’ relation to the Global South and, by default, these journalists’ own standing as “white men saving brown women from brown men,” to use Spivak’s much overused phrase.

How important is it to include all voices in the fight against trafficking and not marginalize those who might not fit the journalistic narrative?

I believe this is one of the most acute problems when it comes to the movement to stop the traffic in women. The most important actors are marginalized at best and invisible at worst. To give you just a few examples, sex workers are constantly ignored in debates about women’s migration in the sex industry. This despite the fact that sex workers everywhere could be an immense resource both for activists and for those workers who are not in the sex industry of their own will. Moreover, sex workers in the Global South organize constantly against western brothel raids, putting together marches, compiling information about the casualties of such raids, and using the Internet to get their message across. The Empower Foundation in Thailand, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), and Sex Workers Rights Advocacy Network in Hungary (SWAN) are but some of the many groups who struggle to make their voices heard in the debate. But, we hear little or nothing in mainstream media about these groups and their struggles. Instead, journalists who make careers from raiding brothels and anti-prostitution groups are constantly in the spotlight; these activists continue to lump together sex trafficking and prostitution, with no regard to the many oppositional voices that have continuously proven the opposite. Moreover, anti-immigration legislation, limiting young women’s border-crossing, is passed in countries throughout the world with the support and lobbying of western anti-trafficking activists.

All this shows that you cannot have a successful movement for gender justice unless you invite all actors at the table and listen carefully to their concerns, questions, and suggestions. The absence of important actors in the anti-trafficking movement harm the very women whom anti-trafficking activists claim to want to help, that is, migrant women, undocumented immigrants, and sex workers. As feminists in the United States, we need to engage critically with current discourses on the traffic in women, take to task humanitarians like Kristof and Cohen, and ask difficult questions about our own complicity in continuing a global system of inequalities.

How critical is a journal like this to scholars like you and articles like the one you will speak about at the reception?

Feminist Formations represents an important scholarly and activist forum where critical questions are asked and valuable conversations emerge. It is crucial that journals such as Feminist Formations continue to exist in the field and I am pleased that my article will find an audience among the readers of this journal. I trust that my essay will spark interesting debates and conversations. Scholars and activists have written critically about the anti-trafficking movement. I can only hope that my article will contribute to the array of critical approaches already out there.