Section Editor: Venessa Garcia
Lutnick, Alexandra. (2016). Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains. New York: Columbia University Press.
Reviewed by Em Alves, Graduate Student, Washington University in St. Louis
Domestic minor sex trafficking has received a lot of academic attention in the last 10 years, and much has been written on the topic. Alexandra Lutnick offers a fresh approach to the topic by focusing on the context of those involved beyond a binary. In her book, Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, Alexandra Lutnick troubles current and past discourse surrounding youth involved in sex trafficking. Rather than describing youth in broad, monolithic, and homogenous ways, Lutnick provides a scholarly and strengths-based perspective of domestic minor sex trafficking that challenges current approaches within the field.
Lutnick organizes the book in a semi-chronological manner. Following the introduction, the author covers the age of entry and timing of entry, third parties and transitions in involvement, microsystems and service needs, mesosystems, local responses, and macrosystem challenges, respectively. Lutnick skillfully guides the reader through the system of domestic minor sex trafficking, without reducing the subjects to binary identities and allowing the reader to understand the full complexity of involvement in domestic minor sex trafficking. While the layout and organization of Lutnick’s book may appear to favor the old narrative of domestic minor sex trafficking, she skillfully employs a more intersectional approach in order to understand the choices of youth as multi-faceted and compounded.
Lutnick uses data she collected from multiple sources as a basis for this book. Lutnick’s study followed the experiences of young people who trade sex over a twenty-two month period, by utilizing program staff at three community-based organizations based in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. Lutnick provides analysis through the lens of life course theory, a theory that connects behavior and outcomes as a dynamic process that accounts for the individual person, the time, and the environment. Lutnick’s discussion of third-parties is especially enlightening to discussions around domestic minor sex trafficking. Previous literature within the field did not offer an in-depth analysis of the ways in which youth become socially tied to sex trafficking, and how these links can increase their risk of violence; she describes the ways in which emotional attachments will often pull youth back into sex trafficking, whether it is to be with a partner who perpetuates their trafficking or to be with other youth involved in the sex trade. Throughout the book, the author provides data from her studies to illustrate the different motivations and risk factors of youth. Lutnick also troubles dominant narratives around youth involved in sex trafficking, particularly narratives used for soliciting donations to anti-trafficking causes, and those which show white, cisgender girls as victims of sex trafficking almost exclusively. Lutnick demonstrates that domestic minor sex trafficking goes beyond the narrative of “victims and villains,” and suggests that describing youth as victims does more harm than good for the youth themselves. Lutnick carefully addresses the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, attempts of organizations to combat domestic minor sex trafficking through the portrayal of those involved as victims.
As a reader, I appreciated that Lutnick wrote openly about the harm that the field has often caused when presenting carefully selected and/or crafted narrative for public consumption and support. Rather than call out this outdated and disproven method, Lutnick carefully calls in the reader and the field whilst admitting that she is not immune to this call in. Ultimately, Lutnick calls for a more nuanced and contextual understanding of youth who trade sex. She moves away from the language of victimization and villainy, and allows for “victims” to be understood as resilient human beings. Lutnick provides strong evidence and a persuasive argument that involvement in domestic minor sex trafficking goes beyond the good/bad and villain/victim binary, and that true change and progress will be made when institutions and systemic inequalities are addressed.