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Brokered Subjects

Sex, Trafficking, and the Politics of Freedom

Brokered Subjects

Sex, Trafficking, and the Politics of Freedom

Brokered Subjects digs deep into the accepted narratives of sex trafficking to reveal the troubling assumptions that have shaped both right- and left-wing agendas around sexual violence. Drawing on years of in-depth fieldwork, Elizabeth Bernstein sheds light not only on trafficking but also on the broader structures that meld the ostensible pursuit of liberation with contemporary techniques of power. Rather than any meaningful commitment to the safety of sex workers, Bernstein argues, what lies behind our current vision of trafficking victims is a transnational mix of putatively humanitarian militaristic interventions, feel-good capitalism, and what she terms carceral feminism: a feminism compatible with police batons.

Read the first chapter.

304 pages | 31 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Gender and Sexuality

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Sociology: Criminology, Delinquency, Social Control, Occupations, Professions, Work

Women's Studies


“Highly recommended. . . Thoroughly researched. . . An incisive critique of the “intervention industry” and a wholesale questioning of the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, which has captured worldwide attention in the new millennium. A most worthwhile read for women, gender, and sexuality scholars and activists, as well as social movement researchers.”


Brokered Subjects...presents groundbreaking insights from Bernstein’s lengthy and wide-ranging ethnographic enquiry into the discur-sive construction of ‘trafficking,’ research that included in-depth interviews with antitrafficking activists and politicians, participant observation at antitrafficking events and policy meetings, ‘rescue projects,’ and (with Elena Shih) an antitrafficking ‘reality tour’ in Thailand. Data from this research, alongside careful attention to the extant literature on antitrafficking and critical engagement with contemporary social theory, allow Bernstein to complicate and advance existing critiques. . . . The powerful and thought-provoking sociological analysis advanced in Brokered Subjects is unlikely to become obsolete any time soon.”

Julia O’Connell Davidson | American Journal of Sociology

"This [is a] fascinating, readable and compelling book by one of the leading theorists of sexual politics today. Brokered Subjects is thoroughly researched, thoughtfully argued, and should be read by anyone who fashions themselves invested in or critical of anti-trafficking. This is an invaluable study and one that will be guiding critical inquiry for many years to come. Indeed, what we are left with after reading Bernstein’s book is the profound question of what remains when 'human trafficking' is no longer the framework through which freedom is brokered in late capitalism,"

Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

“A whip-smart, razor-sharp analysis of the neoliberal con game behind the global anti–sex trafficking juggernaut. The nuanced ethnography and sophisticated theorizations extend Bernstein’s brilliant groundbreaking critiques of the discourse of sex trafficking and the emergence of carceral feminism. A game-changing must-read for feminists, scholars, and activists alike.”

Lisa Duggan, New York University

Brokered Subjects reveals how central questions of sexuality and gender are to new forms of neoliberal governance and racial power in national and transnational politics. Bernstein reveals why discourses of anti-trafficking campaigns have become ubiquitous across left- and right-wing politics. She shows with powerful ethnographic research and evidence how anti-trafficking brings together a range of political actors who have the power to define sexuality, morality, and what women—especially poor ones—need to do with their bodies. This is important reading for activists, policy makers, NGOs, and researchers.”

Inderpal Grewal, Yale University

“My enthusiasm for this thoughtful and masterful ethnographic analysis of trafficking discourse is unqualified. Bernstein offers a provocative challenge in tracing the work that decades of anti-trafficking interventions have been doing—from facilitating a billion-dollar industry of good intentions reinforced by a white savior industrial complex, to reinforcing sexual, cultural, and racial stereotypes, as well as emboldening a new sexual politics that has securitized rather than enabled the freedom of disenfranchised constituencies. Brokered Subjects is a bold and timely book that is bound to compel a rethinking of contemporary understandings of gender progress and freedom.”

Ratna Kapur, Queen Mary University of London

“Bernstein’s important book on the so-called new abolitionism not only debunks the myth of human trafficking. Its profound originality is that it also moves beyond the apparent irrationality of a “sex panic.” Indeed, carceral feminism, militarized humanitarianism, and redemptive capitalism make strange bedfellows, but this wonderfully rich volume reveals the neoliberal rationality underlying their convergence.”

Eric Fassin, University of Paris VIII

Table of Contents


1 Tracing the “Traffic in Women”
2 The Sexual Politics of Carceral Feminism
3 Seek Justice™
4 The Travels of Trafficking (with Elena Shih)
5 Redemptive Capitalism and Sexual Investability
6 Imagining Freedom



Society for the Study of Social Problems: SSSP Global Division Book Award
Honorable Mention

Sociology of Sexualities section, American Sociological Association: Sociology of Sexualities Section Book Award

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