Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Julie Dahlstrom, Trafficking to the Rescue?, 54 UC Davis L. Rev. (forthcoming)
Since before the dawn of the #MeToo Movement, civil litigators have been confronted with imperfect legal responses to gender-based harms. Some have sought to envision and develop innovative legal strategies. One new, increasingly successful tactic has been the deployment of federal anti-trafficking law in certain cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. In 2017, for example, victims of sexual assault filed federal civil suits under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”) against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Plaintiffs argued that the alleged sexual assault conduct amounted to “commercial sex acts” and sex trafficking. Other plaintiffs’ lawyers have similarly invoked trafficking law against a range of defendants, such as fundamentalist leader Warren Jeffs, Olympic Taekwondo coach Jean Lopez, and well-known photographer Bruce Weber. These efforts have largely succeeded, as federal district courts signal broader judicial acceptance of such federal trafficking claims.
This Article traces federal human trafficking law from its origins to these recent innovative cases. It then considers how civil litigators are turning to human trafficking statutes to overcome decades-old systemic problems with legal responses to gender-based violence. The Article explores how the TVPRA offers unique, pragmatic advantages for plaintiffs. Yet, this trend involves risks, as the expanding deployment of trafficking statutes may lead to constitutional challenges, disproportionate criminal penalties, and confusion about the meaning of trafficking as a legal concept. This Article examines what these efforts signal about the future of human trafficking law as well as the field of gender-based violence.