Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Michelle S. Brown

Committee Members

Lois Presser, Paul K. Gellert, John M. Scheb


The phenomenon of sex trafficking has gained significant public attention in the past few decades. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was passed by the United States’ Congress to provide increased federal penalties and victim services to address what was perceived as a growing social and crime problem. Research has shown that law informs the way that sex trafficking is dealt with in the criminal justice and social service systems and the ways that the crime, victims, and offenders are constructed in these processes. We know very little about how sex trafficking works on the ground in specific cases, specifically in regards to Latino sex trafficking. This research addresses these issues by examining how sex traffickers, victims, legal actors, and other stakeholders conceptualize sex trafficking and construct it as a social problem; how Latino sex trafficking is investigated and prosecuted; and how Latino sex trafficking is connected to the vulnerabilities of Latina women.

The federal prosecution of a Latino sex trafficking case in East Tennessee provided the opportunity for a multi-method case study of a specific Latino sex trafficking network operating in new (immigrant) destination areas. Data for this project was collected through direct observations, interviews with 12 legal and social service actors, and secondary data analysis of legal records. Findings from this research suggest the concepts of force, fraud, coercion, and agency are central to constructing sex trafficking, with the law recognizing only specific definitions of these concepts. The variability in the ways that victims, offenders, legal and social service actors conceptualize the victimization involved in sex trafficking highlight the constructed nature of the concepts of force, fraud, coercion, and agency. Further, law and strict legal definitions regarding sex trafficking constrain the recognition of the variability of victim experiences, specifically those of undocumented immigrant victims. Finally, legal actors’ construction of the crime of sex trafficking and victimhood influence case processing, the representation of victims and crime in court, case outcomes, and services available to victims. As a result of these findings, policy recommendations and directions for future research are suggested.

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Criminology Commons