Trafficking to the Rescue?

Julie Dahlstrom - Boston University School of Law
Vol. 54
Spring 2020
Page 1

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 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’ attorneys have similarly invoked federal trafficking law against a range of defendants, such as Olympic Taekwondo coach Jean Lopez, well-known photographer Bruce Weber, and fundamentalist leader Warren Jeffs. These efforts have largely succeeded, as federal district courts have signaled broader judicial acceptance of such federal trafficking claims.

This Article traces federal human trafficking law from its origins to these recent innovative cases. It demonstrates how civil litigators are turning to human trafficking statutes to overcome decades-old systemic problems with legal responses to gender-based violence. The Article then explores how the TVPRA offers unique, pragmatic advantages for a broad range of plaintiffs. Yet, it argues that this trend also involves risks, as the expanding deployment of trafficking statutes in civil cases may lead by example to constitutional challenges, disproportionate criminal penalties in certain cases, and confusion about the meaning of trafficking as a legal concept. This Article examines what these efforts may signal about the future of human trafficking law as well as the broader field of gender-based violence.

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