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Blurred lines in judging female sex traffickers

The complexity of human trafficking in Australia for sexual exploitation is compounded by about half of the prosecuted perpetrators being females, and many who were once the victims of trafficking themselves.

Flinders University PhD candidate Alexandra Baxter is continuing research to unravel the field of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, and is concerned that such a transition from victim to offender – known as the victim-offender overlap – is not being adequately recognised with trafficking cases involving female perpetrators and sexual exploitation in Australia.

Of all the human trafficking cases that the Australian Federal Police have investigated, only a few have ended with a trial and successful prosecution. There were 20 convictions for trafficking in persons-related offenses in Australia between 2004 and 2017 – nine for female offenders, of which Ms Baxter has examined six cases for her study. “Human trafficking is one of the few crimes that involves a high rate of female involvement as the perpetrator, not only the victim,” she explains.

In these trials, Ms Baxter found that instead of being used as a mitigating factor, the histories of prior victimisation appear to be used as an aggravating factor, particularly in cases where the offender was herself a victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation.

“I believe that considering the histories should be an important part of the trial. I think the judges’ remarks have influence in this area and it is important they consider their remarks.

Ms Baxter shows that the victim-offender overlap applies to these Australian cases of trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation. Her resulting study – When the Line Between Victimization and Criminalization Blurs: The Victim-Offender Overlap Observed in Female Offenders in Cases of Trafficking in Persons for Sexual Exploitation in Australia – has been published in the Journal of Human Trafficking.

She is concerned that two primary themes are identified in the various judges’ sentencing remarks; “similar circumstances to victims” and “she should have known”. These two themes reflect the judges’ expectation of behaviour by those women who were previously victimised and sexually exploited.

“It’s an expectation formed because the Australian criminal justice system relies heavily on a clear differentiation between the completely innocent victim and the completely guilty offender,” says Ms Baxter.

“There is no acknowledgement of the potential for someone’s circumstances to be framed differently. This classification system, however, often discounts the circumstances that surround the females’ transition from victim to offender, thus underestimating the complexity of these occurrences.

“Those offenders who were trafficked themselves and managed to complete their contract are then believed by the judges to be free from that situation. But the question of what they are actually free from remains.”

Ms Baxter says this expectation is not supported by the literature on the victim-offender overlap and does not consider the social structural constraints, including lack of opportunities facing the former victim.

“I am focusing on the role of the perpetrators of these crimes, because the cycle being observed cannot be broken unless all aspects of the problem are understood,” she says.

“Portraying these women as one-dimensional victims or offenders often misses possible themes of survival and agency, which highlight the transition from victim to offender. There is a need to remove the strict ideal victim/ideal offender dichotomy that exists and replace it with a spectrum conception.”

Flinders University’s Dr Marinella Marmo, Associate Professor in Criminology and Ms Baxter’s PhD supervisor, says this study’s analysis of case studies in Australia will have significant impact. “The United Nations has shown an interest in profiling not just trafficked victims but offenders too. Statistics show almost three in 10 convicted human traffickers are female. Ms Baxter’s study indicates that more inclusive social preventative approach may be required to minimise the cycle of victim-offender in the area of human trafficking.”

This research builds on Ms Baxter’s continuing study achievements, which include a First Class Honours degree in criminology with Chancellor’s Letter of Commendation, the Dean’s Certificate for the School of Law’s Top Student Criminal Justice Honour’s Thesis, and speaking at the United Nations Youth Association’s 2017 Human Rights Summit.