Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism


This essay analyzes the portrayal of sex trafficking in representative dramas and documentaries, both Hollywood and independent films. The majority of these films use a rescue narrative to tell the story of sex trafficking: an innocent and naïve young woman or girl is tricked or abducted by a villainous trafficker, who imprisons her and controls her with brutal violence until a heroic rescuer overcomes tremendous adversity in order to save her. Race and nationality inflect this gendered narrative: the rescuers are usually white, Western men and the traffickers are from Eastern Europe and/or are men of color. The issue of sex trafficking is portrayed simplistically, in black and white terms, with a clear bad guy, innocent victim, and savior. Often these films focus on the extreme, and least common, form of trafficking: a minor being abducted off the street and transported violently across national borders to be sold at auction. These films focus on criminal perpetrators and criminal-justice solutions, rather than on the broader systemic causes of sex trafficking, like globalization, economic inequality, poverty, and ethnic, race, and gender oppressions. This essay will discuss the 2007 Hollywood movie Trade, the 2010 Hollywood movie Taken, and the 2007 independent drama Holly as well as the NBC dateline special Children for Sale. The essay will then turn to several films that portray sex trafficking in more complex and nuanced ways: the 2003 film Trading Women, the 1999 film Sacrifice, and the 2007 film Very Young Girls. The essay concludes by calling for more films that portray a wider range of experiences not based on myths about trafficking that lead to simple criminal-justice-oriented solutions, but that explore the complexity of sex trafficking and show the need for localized solutions that address the systemic conditions that fuel sex trafficking.





First Page


Last Page



Licensed to Smith College and distributed CC-BY under the Smith College Faculty Open Access Policy.


Archived as published.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.