Trafficking Narratives and the Prosecution of Nxivm

Brian Donovan, University of Kansas

Since the passage of the Mann Act in 1910, prosecutors have used federal laws against human trafficking to address a wide range of criminal activity, and anti-trafficking laws have been harnessed to agendas that have little to do with trafficking as it is commonly understood. In this paper, I examine trafficking narratives produced in the trial of Keith Raniere, NXIVM’s founder and leader. NXIVM (1998-2018) was a hierarchical organization that combined elements of self-help groups, multi-level marketing, and new religious movements. In 2019, federal prosecutors convicted several leaders in NXIVM for human trafficking. This paper uses approximately 4,000 pages of trial testimony in the prosecution of Raniere. I examine testimony about the abuse and victimization of women in the organization to show how trafficking narratives and the framework of anti-trafficking provided a compelling legal strategy to combat sexual violence and coercion within the (so-called) cult. Yet, insofar as these efforts rely on an expansive conception of trafficking, the trial exemplified the mission creep tendency of anti-trafficking efforts in the United States. This research engages with, and put into dialogue, the sociology of law and critical trafficking studies.

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 Presented in Session 112. Law and order: rhetorics, narratives and social construction