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Thursday, June 20, 2013

The difficulty of defining victimhood

Not surprisingly, the father-son pimp team who were the targets of New York City's first big state trafficking prosecution were acquitted of trafficking. (The Georges had already admitted to promoting prostitution, a charge with much less severe consequences). As I noted in my prior post, Trafficking?, three of the alleged trafficking victims testified for the defense that they were not trafficked.  To the contrary, they claimed that they had a great life with vacations, cars, and lengthy maternity leave, and sold themselves because it provided a good income and out of love for George Jr.

This case, in addition to being a cautionary tale for prosecutors in the still new area of trafficking, is illuminating on the broader subject of victims.  Who gets to define them--the law?  This is clear cut in trafficking as to minors under the federal TVPA, for instance, but as to adults is not always so clear as it involves the definition of coercion. Perhaps the victims themselves, as autonomous beings?  The George case shows that the judge there (the defendants waived a jury) clearly gave great weight to the alleged victims' testimony that they were not in fact victims. Experts? The prosecutors here brought in an expert to outline some of the characteristics of sexually exploited people. The prosecutors then argued that the women here were telling such an outlandish story--no reasonable, uncoerced person could really want to share one "husband" among 3 women, be tattoed with his name, and prostitute themselves for money--that the women's testimony was further proof that they were trafficked, i.e. forced into behavior.

Having worked with some sexually exploited girls, I believe that coercion/trafficking is a part of the picture in the George case. (One of the women, for instance, met the Georges as a minor, but claimed she didn't start working as a prostitute until her "eighteenth birthday"). But as a legal matter I think it is problematic to assign victimhood to people who refuse it. This demeans their autonomy and can delay the healing process. It can also have implications for their family life etc. These concerns come up a lot in the domestic violence context, as Aya Gruber, in The Feminist War on Crime, and others have written about. So I'm still up in the air about how to assess victimhood in these difficult contexts.

The flip side of this, of course, is that some victims are not deemed worthy of victimhood status and the law's protection. These are usually victims marginalized by race, class and non-normative behaviors.  In his recent piece  A Theory of Criminal Victimization, Josh Kleinfeld notes that the usual preference for female victims does not extend to prostitutes. (And I argue in my work-in-progress Punishing to Protect, that the paradigm of child victim does not extend to child prostitutes). Perhaps that played a role in the decision here?

Posted by Cynthia Godsoe on June 20, 2013 at 12:06 PM | Permalink

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