Not in My ‘Backyard Abolitionism’: Vigilante Rescue against American Sex Trafficking

  • Citation: Shih, Elena. “Not in My ‘Backyard Abolitionism’: Vigilante Rescue against American Sex Trafficking.” Sociological Perspectives 59, no. 1 (2016): 66–90.
    • Topics:
    • Human Rights
    • Keywords:
    • racial disparities
    • abuse
    • child abuse
    • sexual exploitation
    • vigilantism
    • abolitionism
    • antitrafficking
    • immigration
    • immigrant women
    • Latina women
    • criminal justice
    • gender disparities
    • racism
    • racial disparities
    • class divides
    • domestic sex trafficking

In 2008, the San Francisco-based antitrafficking nonprofit organization Not for Sale launched a campaign advocating “backyard abolitionism,” training American citizens to seek out and identify victims of human trafficking as part of their everyday activities. Based on two years of ethnographic participant observation with two evangelical Christian human trafficking outreach projects in Southern California, this article examines the processes of what I term vigilante rescue in human trafficking. The enthusiasm around this brand of civilian vigilantism mirrors contemporary trends in urban governance, including community policing and civilian neighborhood patrol as modes of law enforcement engagement that operate outside the formal dictates of “state control.” The nonstate actors discussed in this paper are empowered not through professional skills or legal authority, but rather through merging American concern with human trafficking with moral panics concerning race, class, and migration as markers of sex trafficking. Situating new trends in human trafficking vigilante rescue within the extant literatures on neoliberal governance globally, this article argues that vigilante rescue enforces state goals of surveillance and policing of working-class immigrant women in Los Angeles. These activities further racial, gender, and class divides that extend sexual state politics and privilege criminal justice rather than social welfare solutions to human trafficking.

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