CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Rescue or Divert: The Politics of Anti-Trafficking, Carceral Reform, and Sex Work

Anjali Mahajan, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Social Sciences

Dept/Program: Political Science

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research

Mentor(s): Marie Gottschalk

Date of this Version: 09 May 2022



Calls for criminal justice reform in the United States have multiplied in recent years, yet advocates rarely discuss the role of punitive legislation surrounding the sex industry. Today’s anti-trafficking movement is one notorious for conflating human trafficking with consensual sex work, and it has seen striking success in pushing forward a narrative around the need for rescue. Pennsylvania—with the harshest laws governing the purchase and sale of sex in the country—serves as a useful case study for understanding the relationship between the anti-trafficking movement and the movement for sex workers’ rights. Through a comprehensive review of legislation and relevant literature, an analysis of the growth of the carceral state in relation to the anti-trafficking movement, and a series of fourteen qualitative interviews, this analysis seeks to understand the barriers to decriminalizing sex work in the state, as a proxy for understanding the barriers to sex workers’ rights. Findings are presented in three major sections. First, numerous new pieces of Pennsylvania legislation related to the fear of human trafficking have neither improved conditions for sex workers nor protected victims of trafficking. Second, the anti-trafficking narrative and the push for carceral reform found common ground in problem-solving courts and police-assisted diversion programs, which have further harmed sex workers and victims of trafficking by grafting social services to the criminal legal system. Finally, sex workers’ rights organizations have built abundant strategies to counter the power of the anti-trafficking movement; however, they must also contend with a dearth of accessible funding, an ever-shrinking social safety net, and differing priorities in their movement work. This analysis presents unique insights into the political and carceral contexts surrounding sex work. By delineating these barriers, this analysis works to support future sex workers’ rights coalition-building in Pennsylvania.



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